Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)

Are the Blackstone Rangers a corrupt, exploitive street gang? Or a constructive engine of community black power? This is Part I of a two-part study of the Ranger Nation, the result of six months of research and interviewing.
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SOMETIME between 1961 and 1963, according to evidence presented to a Senate subcommittee chaired by John McClellan of Arkansas last July, an unknown number of black young men, who lived in the general area of Sixty-sixth Place and Blackstone Avenue in the Woodlawn area of Chicago's South Side ghetto, organized a street gang. Like most street gangs, it was formed to protect its members from intimidation by other gangs in the South Side area. The most formidable enemy of this new group was a gang called the Devil's Disciples, which claimed part of the neighboring Kenwood area. In the years which followed, the Disciples became the traditional enemies of the Woodlawn youths, who called themselves Blackstone Rangers.

At first the Rangers were interested only in protecting their territory and their membership from attacks and retaliations by the Disciples, but by 1965 there were an estimated 200 of them in the group, and they were breaking with traditional gang patterns. They were organizing in Woodlawn. And this organization caused some public concern, and even fear, because it began during a period of violent rivalry between the Rangers and the Disciples. During these formative stages the Blackstone Rangers seemed to have placed the running feud between the Disciples and themselves secondary to their primary goal: organization. Soon their influence in Woodlawn caused minor, less influential, less powerful gangs to join them. And they came from all over the South Side: the Maniacs, the Four Corners, the Lovers, the V.I.P.'s, the Pythons, the Warlocks, the F.B.I., the Conservatives, the Pharaohs. At present there are anywhere from 3500 to 8000 boys and men who identify with the Blackstone Rangers and who have affixed the Ranger name to the names of their own gangs. Such is the organizational structure and size of the Blackstone Rangers today that they call themselves a Nation. The Ranger Nation is headed by a group of young men called the Main 21. Until 1968 the president of the organization was Eugene "Bull" Hairston, the vice president was Jeff Fort (also called "Angel" and "Black Prince"), and the warlord was George Rose (also called "Watusi" and "Mad Dog"). The Rangers' spiritual leader was Paul "The Preacher" Martin, and the rest of the Main 21 was made up of leaders of the minor gangs who had joined with the Rangers. Each individual gang, it seems, maintained its own organizational structure with its own officers; but collectively all of the gangs made up the Blackstone Nation, which is presently incorporated to do business under the laws of Illinois.

Since the emergence of the Ranger Nation, individual members have been charged with murder, robbery, rape, knifings, extortion of South Side merchants, traffic in narcotics, extortion and intimidation of young children, forced gang membership, and a general history of outright violence, especially against the Disciples who never joined the Rangers. On the other hand, the Ranger Nation has been credited with keeping the South Side of Chicago "cool" during the summer of 1967 and the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It has been said that they have kept drugs, alcoholics, prostitutes, and whites hunting for prostitutes out of their neighborhoods. They have also been credited with making genuine attempts to form lasting peace treaties between themselves and the Disciples in order to decrease the level of gang fighting on the South Side. They have been alternately praised and condemned by the national press, their community, the United States Senate, the local police, and Chicago youth organizations to such an extent that, if one depends on the news media for information, it is almost impossible to maintain a consistent opinion of the Blackstone Rangers.

Some of the Chicago papers have been quick to report any charges of violent activity against a Ranger. In newspaper accounts, the name of the gang takes precedence over the individual arrested and charged with crimes. Many of the charges are accurate; many of the young men who identify with the Rangers are guilty of various crimes. But much of the information passed on to the press is shown to have no substance upon thorough investigation. Still, the adverse publicity serves to keep the Chicago communities, both black and white, in a state of apprehension over the Blackstone Ranger organization, as opposed to the individuals in it.

There has been, and presently still is, a cry for a massive police crackdown on the Rangers. To accomplish this, the Chicago Police Department, following a general order issued by former Chicago Superintendent of Police O. W. Wilson, formed the Gang Intelligence Unit in March of 1967 to learn more about the Rangers and to decrease forcibly the level of gang violence in all areas of Chicago generally, and in the South Side area in particular. The stated purpose of the Unit was to eliminate "the antisocial and criminal activities of groups of minors and young adults in the various communities within the city."

 

IN EARLY June of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O), a grass roots community association made up of one hundred or so block clubs, and civic, religious, and business organizations in the Woodlawn area of the South Side, received a $957, 000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to set up a special kind of youth project in the Woodlawn area. The purpose of the program was to utilize the existing gang structure—the Blackstone Rangers and the Devil's Disciples—as a means of encouraging youth in the gangs as well as non-gang youth to become involved in a pre-employment orientation, motivational project. The project was to include eight hundred out-of-school unemployed youths. And the entire program was to operate through four job-training centers which were to be set up in the home territories of the Rangers and Disciples. Reverend Arthur Brazier, president of The Woodlawn Organization, was responsible for bringing the interest of OEO to the proposed program, which was admitted to be a "high-risk venture."

The money from OEO went directly to The Woodlawn Organization. It did not go through city agencies, although one of the conditions of the grant was that the mayor was to be "invited" to concur in the selection of a project director for the program. There is some opinion that the mayor's office was not pleased with this. In fact, the full operation of the program was delayed over two months because of the inability of the T.W.O. people and Mayor Richard J. Daley to come to an agreement on a director for the program. By the time the program officially began in September, a project director had not been hired, and the Rangers and Disciples had, apparently, lost much of their enthusiasm for the program.

In September of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization opened four training centers in the Woodlawn area: two for the Blackstone Rangers and two for the Devil's Disciples. One of the Ranger Centers was located in the First Presbyterian Church, a church in the Woodlawn area headed by Reverend John Fry, a white Presbyterian clergyman. The Xerox Corporation was hired to formulate the curriculum; the Chicago Urban League was hired to do job development; and Arthur Andersen & Company was hired to give T.W.O. monthly reviews. In addition, a Monitoring Unit with the Chicago police was set up to have two meetings a month with T.W.O. people and representatives from the two gangs, which had attempted to deescalate the level of their violent rivalry since the new program had been announced.

The trainees were paid $45 a week to take five hours of instruction a day for five days a week, in, addition to travel expenses. The instructors in the program, or Center Chiefs, were not professionals but gang leaders who were supposed to be under the supervision of professionals because, as Reverend Brazier stated before the McClellan Committee, "many of these youth do not relate to professionals because the professionals with middle-class attitudes do not relate to them." Eugene Hairston, president of the Rangers, was hired as an assistant project director at a salary of $6500 a year. Jeff Fort, Ranger vice president, became a Center Chief and received $6000 a year. And many of the other members of the Main 21 occupied, at one time or another, salaried positions in the project. Apparently, there was not much public opposition to the hiring of gang leaders by the program. Rather, there seems to have been a reversal in public attitude toward the Rangers because of their performance in the year before the program began.

One of the activities which helped their public image was the production of a musical review called Opportunity Please Knock, which was sponsored by Oscar Brown, Jr., the jazz pianist, and performed by groups of Rangers and students from the Hyde Park High School. The show, which was eventually taken over by the Rangers, ran for six weeks in May and June of 1967. An estimated eight thousand people went to the First Presbyterian Church during the first weeks of its performance, and it received very favorable nationwide publicity. Subsequent performances were given in various suburban communities around Chicago, and parts of the show traveled to Watts to perform. Some members of the troupe appeared on the Smothers Brothers show, and Ebony featured a large color story of the production in its August, 1967, issue.

A second instance of positive Ranger activity, which also gained them favorable publicity, was their willingness to be bussed out of town on August 12, Bud Billiken Day (named for a mythical folk hero created by the Chicago Daily Defender, a black newspaper). All past major conflicts between the Rangers and the Disciples had taken place during the Bud Billiken Day Parade and picnic in the South Side's Washington Park. In 1966 the city of Chicago had financed an out-of-town picnic for the Rangers through the Boys' Club, although there is some evidence that it considered the picnic idea a kind of blackmail exacted by the Rangers. In 1967, however, The Woodlawn Organization requested from OEO permission to use $5000 of its funds to take six hundred Rangers to an out-of-town picnic at Valparaiso University. The Rangers made the decision to leave town, it is said, because of rumors of a brewing riot and the public expectation that they would cause or at least participate in it.

The Ranger vice president, Jeff Fort, had been jailed on July 30 on murder charges and was still in jail on Bud Billiken Day. There are conflicting statements about whether or not Fort threatened to start a riot. Policemen have testified that he stated that if he were arrested, "the city would burn," while other sources reported that he cautioned the Rangers, after his arrest, not to riot. In any case, he remained in jail until early September of 1967, and there was no riot. The Rangers attended their picnic, and there were few incidents during the day. Whether or not the Rangers and Disciples actively contributed to the calm remains an open question. But a safe assumption can be made that when the T.W.O. project began in September, the Blackstone Rangers were enjoying a good deal of favorable press coverage and community support.

A final incident in the fall of 1967 helped their image in the city. In the Kenwood district, which adjoins Woodlawn, the police dispersed a black-power rally on September 15. The crowd then moved to a local high school, where bottles were thrown and two shots were fired by a sniper. The situation seemed to have been too tense for the police, when Herbert Stevens, leader of the Four Corners Rangers and a member of the Main 21 (known as "Thunder"), was said to have stood before the crowd and said, "All you who are willing to die, step up now. Otherwise, let's go home." And as he turned to leave he said, "When I come back, I don't want to see anybody on the streets. I want these streets cleared." When he returned in five minutes, the story goes, the crowd had broken up.

 

THE Blackstone Rangers wanted to play a major role in determining how the OEO-Woodlawn project should be run, and there were meetings throughout the summer of 1967 between the gang leaders and representatives of T.W.O. to determine the extent of their voice in the project. These meetings were kept under surveillance by detectives from the Gang Intelligence Unit.

The public favor enjoyed by the Rangers during the summer pf 1967 dropped off severely when the president and vice president were arrested in late September for soliciting three juveniles—Marvin Martin, fifteen, Sanders Martin, fourteen, and Dennis Jackson, also fourteen—to murder a narcotics dealer named Leo McClure. McClure was in fact one of three men who were shot. Though he was not, it emerged, the prime target, he was the only one of the three who died. Dennis Jackson was alleged to have done the actual shooting. Hairston, the Ranger president, was kept in jail without bond, and the newspapers printed so many stories about a Teen-age Murder, Inc., and so many details of the case against Hairston, that the first courtroom case ended in a mistrial.

During the same period the activities of Reverend John Fry and the First Presbyterian Church, which served as one of the T.W.O. training centers, were called into question. The church was said to be an arsenal for the Rangers to store their guns and a place where they sold and smoked marijuana, had sexual activity, and held their secret gang meetings. Then Jeff Fort was arrested in October and charged with murdering a Disciple. Both his arrest and the earlier arrest of Hairston encouraged the press to give extensive adverse publicity to The Woodlawn Organization because of their employment by the project. Soon afterward, three of the Main leaders, also members of the T.W.O. staff, were indicted for rape. The detectives of the G.I.U. made extensive visits to the training centers and found, according to their reports, no actual training taking place, the falsification of time sheets, gambling, and evidence that marijuana was being smoked on the premises. Finally, a Disciple was shot in one of the two Disciple Centers with a shotgun. The shooting was said to have been an accident, but the G.I.U. detectives who investigated the shooting found evidence that "light narcotics" (Robitussin) were being used at the Disciple Center. It was about this time that Senator McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations began to gather evidence in its planned investigation of The Woodlawn Organization's "high-risk" project.

 

THE investigation began on June 28, 1968, in Washington. There was nationwide television coverage as all those who had connections with the project, official or otherwise, testified before Senators Jacob Javits, Carl Curtis, Fred Harris, Edmund Muskie, Karl Mundt, and of course, Chairman John McClellan, who asked most of the questions.

Reverend Arthur Brazier made a desperate attempt to defend his project, explaining how participation of gang members was necessary for its success and charging that harassment from the Gang Intelligence Unit and explosively adverse news publicity had made it almost impossible for the project to develop as anticipated. Members of the Gang Intelligence Unit testified that they had made extensive visits to the training centers during the period of their operation and had found very little, if any, instruction going on. They also testified to the long list of crimes said to have been committed by gang members while under the sponsorship of T.W.O., especially the murder which was said to have been solicited by Eugene Hairston and Jeff Fort.

Perhaps the most damaging testimony against the program, if not against the Rangers themselves, came from George Rose, a former warlord of the Rangers who had defected from the organization, and a Mrs. Annabelle Martin, a black mother of ten who claimed to have had a very close relationship with the gang. The two Martin boys allegedly solicited by Hairston to commit the murder of Leo McClure were her sons.

Rose testified that the Rangers were involved in the sale of narcotics; that trainees in the program were forced to kick back to the organization from $5 to $25 each week; that the Rangers, from the start, had no interest in job training and that the program was used only to increase the gang's membership and its treasury; and that the First Presbyterian Church and its people—Reverend John Fry, Charles Lapaglia, and Anne Schwalbach, all white—were attempting to control and direct the gang through influence over Jeff Fort.

According to Rose's testimony, Reverend Fry had actually written the proposal for the OEO grant and had turned it over to Reverend Brazier; the church was used for the sale of narcotics, the storage of guns, and a convenient place for the Rangers to engage in sexual activity. He also told the Committee that Lapaglia had taken some of the Main 21 leaders on a trip to Michigan to purchase guns and on another trip to Philadelphia to attend a black-power conference where the murders of certain nonmilitant civil rights leaders were plotted. He said that the Rangers had made it known to Reverend Brazier that they considered the OEO money theirs and would not let outsiders—school dropouts who were not Rangers—into the program And, according to his testimony, Brazier consented to this without informing OEO officials. Rose told the Committee that many of the gang leaders who had been hired as instructors or Center Chiefs had fifth- or sixth-grade educations and that Jeff Fort, who served as a Center Chief, could not read or write. Finally, he stated that students from regular schools were forced to drop out in order to join the program and the gang, and that those who refused were beaten, shot in the arms, forced to keep off the streets, or killed. In this way, he said, the Rangers induced "a couple hundred" students to leave public schools and join the program, and that it was a practice of the Rangers to solicit juveniles to commit murder because they received a lighter sentence if they were caught.

Of special interest was his testimony that the Rangers had offered to help the police, and, in fact, did outfit themselves in black uniforms, called themselves the police of the Blackstone Ranger Nation, policed their neighborhoods, and turned over to the police several non-Rangers in order to clear the name of their organization. He stated that the police accepted them at first, but then, "after we turned a couple of guys in and made it known that they weren't our guys, the police still started cracking our young fellows' heads, just because of the uniforms. They called us storm troopers because we had black jump boots, black pants tucked into. the top of the boots. . . . They didn't like this at all. They called it mob action."

Rose also testified that after the Rangers were rejected by the police, Reverend John Fry advised them to begin extorting merchants. "Since we west being accused of it," he said, "there wasn't anything we could lose by doing it." Rose said that the Rangers got from $5000 to $8000 a week from tavern owners and various sums from shoe stores, clothing stores, food stores, and drugstores through threats of future violence against them. Robert L. Pierson of the Chicago State's Attorney’s Office told the Committee that the Rangers "are the beginning of a Black Mafia." He testified that the Rangers were, in fact, extorting merchants but that the merchants would not complain because of fear of retaliation from the gang. During the April days following the murder of Martin Luther King when the Rangers distributed signs to be displayed in the windows of neighborhood merchants, he said, they charged $50 for their protection.

Jeff Fort, who had assumed leadership of the gang after Hairston was convicted in May of 1968, was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. He was sworn in but never sat down before Senator McClellan. Marshall Patner, Fort's lawyer, submitted a request that the Committee allow Fort to confront and cross-examine the witnesses who had testified against him. The request was refused by Senator McClellan under authority of the Committee Rules. After a heated exchange between Patner and Senator McClellan during which both the lawyer and Fort were reminded of the possibility of contempt charges if Fort refused to accept protection from the Fifth Amendment and proceed with his testimony, Marshall Patner turned to Fort, still standing beside him, and said: "We really must go." Then they walked out.

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