The El Rukns were a gang of ruthless drug dealers and pimps operative between 1977 and 1990, who attempted to shield themselves from federal inquiry under the facade of a religious organization. Between 1985 and 1987, the gang even dabbled in international terrorism, allegedly traveling to Libya and meeting with agents of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to offer their services as domestic terrorists in return for money and weapons.
Jeff Fort founded the El Rukns upon his release from prison in 1977. Most of the gang leadership were comprised of select members of the gang Fort led during the 1960s, before his stint in prison, the Black P. Stones. The name "Rukn" refers to stones or rocks in Arabic. In 1977, Fort purchased a building at this location, 3947 S. Drexel, to serve as the new gang's headquarters, which he rechristened the "El Rukn Grand Major Temple". Here is a contemporary photo of the building during its Rukn heyday:
The building was originally constructed as a theater in 1915, and was one of the city's first film-only venues, as well as one of the city's largest theaters, offering over 1,000 seats. The Oakland Square Theater remained in business until the late 1960s, when the decline of the movie theater industry, plus the changing demographics of the neighborhood, forced its closure. Ironically, one factor in the owner's decision to close was the continuing extortion attempts by the Black P. Stones.
For a few years, the "Affro-Arts Theater" took its place, and served as a major community center, offering African-themed productions to the largely Black residents of the neighborhood. The Theater offered some major attractions; Mohammed Ali and Gwendolyn Brooks both appeared there at various times. The radical politics of the Theater's ownership (for example, Stokely Carmichael spoke there in 1968) created recurring clashes with Chicago police, who shut down the Theater several times for trumped-up building code violations, and eventually the Affro-Arts closed in 1971.
The building sat empty for several years, until it was seized by the county and sold at auction to the Rukns, who referred to it informally as "the fort". The Rukns wore fur coats and flashy hats, changed their names to include the word "el," and offered public fealty to their leader, Jeff Fort, who they called "Prince Malik". In fact, however, the Rukns were not really a religious organization at all (a federal judge ruled so in 1986, clearing the way for RICO indictments of its leadership), but a ruthless drug-selling gang with enormous ambitions. With about 250 members, the Rukns' core business was the marketing of various inexpensive pharmaceutical substitutes for heroin, and they controlled big portions of the South side as their sales district. Prostitution, protection, and labor unions were subsidiary operations.
As their success grew, they branched out into real estate, forming a subsidiary business, the "El Pyramid Corporation," to manage their property holdings, which they usually acquired by intimidating the owners into selling below market value. The Rukns also opened their own private security service, which they offered for use at major events. They even started their own non-accredited "law" school, by which gang associates could receive degrees; these "attorneys" could then privately visit gang members in jail to transmit orders from leadership on the outside.
El Rukns were also active in politics. In 1982, election commissioners were surprised to see a group of Rukns bring in thousands of new voter registrations -- acting like the community organization they claimed to be, instead of the predatory criminals the police said they were. However, the fact is that an Illinois State Representative from the Temple's district, Larry Bullock, had paid the Rukns $70,000 to campaign throughout the South side for incumbent Chicago mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary. When the newspapers published the fact that a known criminal organization was supporting Byrne, her campaign disowned the Rukns, but the publicity damage was substantial, and Byrne lost in the primary to Harold Washington.
The Temple was continually raided by police throughout the 1980s, who usually had to use battering rams and acetylene torches to break through the thick steel doors the Rukns had installed, and in June, 1982, Jeff Fort and several other top Rukn leaders were arrested for drug distribution charges. Fort, with his previous convictions, was sent to lockdown at a federal prison in Bastrop, Texas, for a 13 year sentence. Fort's telephone privileges in prison were not, however, curtailed, and he continued to lead the gang throughout the 1980s, using a sophisticated system of secret codes by which he communicated back to the Temple.
By 1985, the government managed to turn a top El Rukn into a prosecution witness, which led to a major RICO investigation. In the next year, they cracked Fort's codes, in which the Rukns' five fundamental "principles," love, truth, peace, justice, and freedom, could be combined in various ways to form numbers.
What they found in those codes astounded them. As Fort's indictment stated, "the conspirators proposed to perform...violent acts in the United States on behalf of or at the direction of the government of Libya," although these proposals had not been carried particularly far. In 1987, Jeff Fort was sentenced to another 80 years for the Libyan plot. In addition, he was also moved to a SuperMax prison in Colorado from which he was unable to communicate with the Rukns in Chicago.
Without Fort, the gang suffered a serious lack of business acumen and leadership. Rukn leaders began using drugs (Fort had strictly prohibited the use of any substance stronger than marijuana), and infighting between rival factions led to bloody confrontations. The Rukns had always been vastly outnumbered by their major rival organization, the Gangster Disciples, and without Fort's leadership, the paucity of street-level manpower showed.
The police seized the Temple in 1989 and razed it to the ground in 1990. With the demolition of the Temple, the "El Rukn" name fell out of use and the gang split into several "stones" gangs, each of which controlled a small amount of territory. There were attempts in the 1990s by Jeff Fort's two sons to reconstitute the Rukns, but neither had anything like the leadership skill of their father, and these attempts failed.
The lot on which the El Rukn Temple stood remained empty for a decade, until a large, attractive private home was built on the site.