[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
“Brothers, this is where you live. There’s no place else to go that is not the same. So make what you already have a beautiful thing. If you succeed, then the system can’t deny blacks nothing because what he calls the worst of humans proved him wrong. Never forget, WE ARE SOMEBODY!” – Bobby Gore, leader of Conservative Vice Lords
As we remember Chicago in 1968, we don’t always think about youth movements outside the context of the Democratic National Convention. We tend to forget those who fought for local change in other ways that were just as revolutionary. In the late 1960’s, one of the largest gangs in Chicago, the Vice Lords, became the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL), pledging to change their neighborhood through an ethos of self-determination. People tend to think of gangs as catalysts only for social mayhem, full of youths that have too much time on their hands. Yet the CVL tried to change socially rebellious energy into good work for the Lawndale community, and their activity became an organized form of rebellion against the urban system.
Between 1967 and 1969, the former gang opened businesses and community programs in Lawndale, contradicting notions held by politicians and government officials that a neighborhood club, a gang, in the ghetto could not change without outside intervention. How could the government know exactly what was needed in the neighborhood if they were not citizens of that neighborhood? According to CVL leader Bobby Gore, “They [CVL] wanted to change the conditions that caused a man to get a gun and hold up a store… to make him drink cheap whiskey… to make him forget about the conditions in which he lives.” All CVL programs had interlocking goals pertaining to the betterment of youth life, education, and social awareness, as well as community empowerment.
Many of the programs were created for the purpose of educating and economically empowering the youth and families of Lawndale. The Street Academy was a GED program for high school dropouts. The Management Training Institute was a 20-week program that taught black history, self-awareness, reading, and business skills. CVL was involved in Y.O.U. (Youth Organizations United), a Washington-based, national office of some 350 former gang members working within the system to improve living conditions in their communities, and to provide education and job opportunities so their little brothers and sisters. CVL also had a tenants’ rights group, and The House of Lords, designed to stop the police from arresting youths who might have been standing on the street corner instead.
Programs were not only geared toward getting youths active and occupied, but also promoted an Afro-American identity for black residents of the Westside. CVL opened the African Lion, a soul shop that sold clothing and accessories in line with an African aesthetic. Art & Soul, a gallery project designed to educate both youth and adults, and provide a path for expression, with art that reflected political and social issues. The building housed art happenings related to the Black Arts Movement. There was free instruction and it was an open space for art creation.
The programs of the CVL tried to create networks of information, so that future generations could grow up with a sense of empowerment and self-worth. The Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. served as an example of a movement to bring sustainable power to the people. They were very much a part of the 1960s movements for change, another bit of the continuous constellation of community change that comprises the struggle against injustice. ◊