[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
In the late 1960s, day after day, Chicago Tribune articles reporting robberies, knifings, and homicide on the South Side blamed the Blackstone Rangers as the source of all delinquency. In an 1969 interview with Atlantic Monthly, Woodlawn’s Congressman Abner Mikva remarked, “If someone commits a crime in the area and if he is a kid, the victim will assume that he’s a Ranger, but if the Rangers had committed all the crimes they have been charged with, there would probably have to be at least 100,000 of them, or they would have to be some of the most energetic criminals who ever lived.” Though firmly rejecting the term “gang,” the Rangers reached national renown under this label by the mid-1960s, as the group branched out into cities beyond Chicago such as Cleveland, Gary and Milwaukee.
But as historian Timuel Black has pointed out, the Blackstone Rangers also participated in campaigns for economic justice and human rights. As 2008 comes to a close and research continues to make sense of the history of groups such as the Blackstone Rangers, it is appropriate to re-evaluate the truth behind the myths. In living through difficult times, their actions were truly cries from Chicagoans, passionately seeking a way to live meaningfully within their community—a passion certainly needed forty years later, as too many in this nation continue to demonstrate apathy alongside systems of injustice.
Recounting the beginnings of the Blackstone Rangers during an talk at the University of Illinois at Chicago in November of 2000, Black argued that a great migration of immigrants into the city was a major catalyst for gang formation. After World War II, he remarks, people from Mexico and Puerto Rico flooded into northern urban centers, at the time largely populated by African Americans. Competition for jobs was intense and youth became as polarized as their elders. At Hyde Park High School during the early 1960s, within this atmosphere, a student named Jeff Fort led a small group of other boys into becoming the established Blackstone Rangers of Woodlawn. By 1969, the group called itself a “Nation,” with as many as 8000 people claiming affiliation to the Rangers, including members of formerly autonomous, smaller South Side groups.
Though apolitical at the outset, by the mid-1960s, the Blackstone Nation found itself at the forefront of the fight for equal housing, education, and work within the city of Chicago in addition to joining the national African American Civil Rights struggle. In 1967 in collaboration with the Rangers, the grassroots enterprise The Woodlawn Organization opened two career training centers in their neighborhood to create a work placement network and job training. Federally funded through the Office of Economic Opportunity, the establishment came under federal scrutiny as both centers were staffed by leaders of the Blackstone Rangers who were accused of taking money from trainees. Tagged as a “gang,” the Blackstone Nation was viewed with great suspicion by the public.
In 1966, the Rangers provided security as Martin Luther King and the Congress On Racial Equality marched through hostile white neighborhoods like Cicero and Marquette Park (famously documented in the film Eyes on the Prize). As the Rangers were becoming more activist in orientation, the Chicago Police Department, in 1967, initiated the Gang Intelligence Unit, a specialized police division. Arrests soared and the Rangers reported countless police abuses. Though in no way were the Blackstone Rangers innocent of every crime pinned upon them since their establishment, the perspective of today paints a clearer picture of the group’s actions and desperate situation. Victims of hatred by newcomers pouring into the South Side in search of work, they spoke for an end to discrimination. Targets of an obsessive media and police with questionable control, they demanded justice for their neighbors and spoke for an end to abuses of power. While the news continually overlooked the Rangers’ dedication to establishing peace treaties with rival groups in the area (including briefly the Illinois Black Panther Party), its efforts to keep prostitutes and drugs off the streets, and its pivotal role in calming the South Side in the Spring of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., today’s perspective allows us to see the Blackstone Rangers’ genuine efforts at community leadership and citizenship.
- James Alan McPherson. “The Blackstone Rangers (II).”
- This information and material in the following paragraph are drawn from Timuel Black, “The History of African American Gangs in Chicago.”
- James F. Short Jr., “Youth, Gangs and Society,” 5.
- McPherson, “The Blackstone Rangers (I).”
- Short, 12.
- McPherson, “The Blackstone Rangers (I).”
In 1986, Ranger leader Jeff Fort heard that Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam had received $5 million to support his work from the state of Libya. Fort then decided to pursue getting money from Libya as well—he took this request straight to Colonel Moammar Khadafy. Over the course of that year, the Rangers made several trips to Libya as well as Panama for meetings with Khadafy and other Libyan leaders. Throughout most of that time the FBI was following or wiretapping the Rangers, and eventually set them up by going undercover and selling the Rangers a U.S. military rocket. Eventually the Rangers were busted for having the rocket and for attempting to wage a terrorist campaign against the U.S. in exchange for the $2.5 million they were given by Colonel Moammar Khadafy. For more information see Ron Chepesiuk, “America’s Home Grown Terrorists: The Strange Case of Libya, Khadafy and a Chicago Street Gang”