A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Subscribe to The TRiiBE. Click here >>

In the 1960s, Black youth-led street gangs on Chicago’s West and South sides were institutions. They opened businesses and recreational centers, were awarded job contracts and won scholarships to Dartmouth College. 

They also worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to spearhead the Chicago Freedom Movement, while protesting housing injustices and demanding more union jobs for African Americans. 

Black street gangs were well on their way to becoming political powerhouses in a racially segregated city run by European immigrants who were hell-bent on defending their turf.  

Like the Italian, German, Jewish, Polish and Irish youth-led street gangs that came before them, these tough and territorial tribes of young Black men—namely North Lawndale’s Conservative Vice Lords (CVL) and Woodlawn’s Black P. Stone Nation (BPSN)—were on track to transform themselves and their communities through Chicago politics.

But the revolutionary potential they harnessed to challenge and circumvent the city’s power structure posed too big a threat to Chicago’s most notorious gang leader of them all — Mayor Richard J. Daley. An Irish gangster, Daley used city power to serve and protect the interests of his community of racist, violent and politically savvy Catholic immigrants.

Long before Daley was first elected mayor in 1955, he was president of an Irish-Catholic street gang, the Hamburg Athletic Club — infamous for instigating the deadliest anti-Black race riot in Chicago’s history on the South Side during the summer of 1919, when he was 17. 

In the early years of the 20th century, many “athletic clubs” such as the Hamburgs were sponsored by Chicago’s machine politicians and were instrumental in getting out the vote by any means necessary, including through bribes, intimidation and physical violence.

Another mostly Irish gang, the Ragen Colts, was sponsored by Cook County Commissioner Frank Ragen and became notorious bootleggers after joining forces with Al Capone and the Chicago mob known as the Outfit.

You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Join our newsletter to find a free copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones. 

The Colts and Hamburgs are said to have invented the drive-by shooting in 1919 when they drove their cars into Bronzeville shooting at Black residents. 

Many politically connected white athletic club gang members went on to become police officers, aldermen, prosecutors, judges, politicians and other government employees. In this way, gang culture is deeply embedded into Chicago politics. Unfortunately for the newly emerging Black gangs of the 1950s and 1960s, white gangs had already claimed their territory in city governance and were determined to keep Blacks out.

Young Black revolutionary gang leaders, such as the Stones’ Jeff Fort, who were inspired by the budding Black Power Movement, earned themselves some powerful enemies when they decided to organize for true control over their communities and representation in City Hall.

In 1967, both the Stones and Vice Lords campaigned against Mayor Daley in his fourth bid for reelection. And not coincidentally, that same year, the Chicago Police Department established its first Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU) to monitor and infiltrate Black youth street organizations.

1969-09-24 | The Vice Lords occupy Our Lady of Providence Academy at 410 South Albany Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Leaders of the Stones and Devil’s Disciples — which later became the Gangster Disciples — were hired by The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) in 1967 to run a nearly $1 million government grant program designed to engage and train 800 out-of-school youth. Mayor Daley was furious that the funds from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity bypassed City Hall and went directly to TWO.

He did everything in his power to sabotage the program and refused to approve a program director for more than two months. And when the program finally started, Daley’s GIU detectives routinely surveilled and raided the Stones’ training centers that TWO had opened in Woodlawn. 

Senate committee hearings on the TWO program began on June 28, 1968, in Washington D.C. Fort and other leaders of the Stones were eventually charged by the federal government with mismanagement of funds, extortion and conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. 

Members of the GIU testified against the gang members, claiming that no training was happening in the program and the Stones were using the government grant to line their pockets and fund their criminal activities. Fort was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

And just like that, Daley didn’t have to worry about gangs receiving government funding in his city without his approval anymore. The Stones’ reputation was so tarnished by the trial that funding for their community outreach and development programs ceased almost immediately. 

Furthermore, after the trial, it was considered bad business to invest in Black street gangs or try to aid the misguided youth in actualizing their potential to evolve and become architects of community construction. Newly forming relationships between philanthropists, corporate giants, reformers and Black youth gangs were irreparably harmed.

Across town on the West Side, the Vice Lords had been raking in grants from the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund and the Sears-Roebuck Foundation.

With this funding, from 1967 to 1969, Vice Lords, Inc. opened at least five businesses in North Lawndale, including: The African Lion, an Afro-centric clothing store; Teen Town, a youth-centered ice cream parlor; The House of Lords, a recreation center for teens; Art and Soul, an art center for youth opened in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Illinois and the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission; and two Tastee Freez franchises.

After the trial, although the Vice Lords had nothing to do with the TWO program scandal, their funding was cut off too. All Black gangs were bad business and never to be socially accepted through political organizing like their Irish, Jewish and Italian predecessors.

And in 1969, Mayor Daley and Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan declared a full out “War on Gangs,” specifically targeting Black and brown youth organizations that threatened the Irish mob’s stronghold on the Democratic machine—including the Stones, Vice Lords, Devil’s Disciples and the Black Panther Party. The Panthers were actually a political organization and not a street gang, but that just made them even bigger targets for Daley and his henchmen. 

It was in the context of Daley’s “War on Gangs” that Edward Hanrahan, CPD, the GIU and the FBI conspired to murder 21-year-old Fred Hampton and 22-year-old Mark Clark of the Illinois Black Panther Party.

The War on Gangs deemed all young Black street organizers — and Black youth in general—absolute and irredeemable criminals undeserving of empathy, freedom, juvenile leniency or their lives. And from then on, gangs were hailed as the most serious crime problem in the city. 

Today, when violence in Black and brown Chicago neighborhoods is categorized as “gang related,” it absolves the city officials from taking responsibility for constructing racial ghettos and designated pockets of poverty.

Meanwhile, Mayor Daley and top city officials were running the biggest hiring fraud operation in Chicago history, awarding jobs, promotions and favors to their politically connected friends and associates—to their gang members.

(Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) is a Chicago-based raptivist and revolutionary, nationally known for making sedition irresistible through her art, activism and advocacy.