Tuesday, July 21, 2009

138 Years of Murder in Chicago

Unlike other posts on this site, this one focuses not on a single crime scene or an historical account of one or two individuals, but instead summarizes the facts on over a century of murder in Chicago. One of the main purposes of this blog is to understand Chicago's historic and modern reputation for crime, and comparisons over time can be illuminating.

The figure above shows the city's murder rate, expressed as murders per 100,000 residents, between 1870 and 2008. This gives a long-run summary view of homicide in Chicago over the last 138 years. I focus here on murder because, unlike rape, larceny, and other crimes, the likelihood of unreported victims is less severe with murder. The cops will eventually notice every corpse lying in the street, although it is true that some "accidental" deaths may actually have been murders, and some bodies are never found.
Data from 1931 to the present is drawn from the FBI's annual Crime in the United States, and is based on reports from local police agencies. Figures from 1870 - 1930 are based on Chicago police department data processed by Homicide in Chicago, a project hosted at Northwestern University School of Law. All figures include both murders and non-negligent manslaughter.

Between 1870 and 1920, Chicago's crime rate grew at an essentially steady pace, reaching a peak of 10 per 100,000 in 1919. During this period, Chicago was growing in population and density. High population density is typically associated with greater crime rates for several reasons. First, in small towns, every face is familiar, but in large cities, criminals are less likely to be recognized by witnesses. Realizing a lower likelihood of being caught, criminals commit more crimes. Second, crime pays better in cities, because there are more people to rob -- there's no point in becoming a robber in the first place if you can't hit lots of targets. Finally, and especially relevant to Chicago during this period, big cities attract large communities of poor immigrants with few prospects for legal employment. Criminal, on the other hand, is a profession open to all.

With the onset of national Prohibition in 1919, many of these immigrants gained lucrative employment in the bootlegging field, and for the first few years of the 1920s, at least, murder rates fell by nearly 50%. But as the various parts of Johnny Torrio's syndicate began falling apart in 1924, culminating in the murder of Torrio's north side associate Dion O'Banion, likely at the hand of his south side associates, the Genna brothers, Chicago's "Beer Wars" began, and the murder rate skyrocketed by 250% between 1923 and 1928. Also around the same time, the notoriously-violent Al Capone took over full control of Torrio's organization in 1925.

Even as Prohibition ended in 1931, murder rates remained high throughout the early 1930s, the worst years of the Great Depression, before falling below 5 per 100,000 in 1943. No doubt the massive mobilization of American men out of Chicago and into military companies in army barracks and overseas locations played no small role in the low murder rates of the early 1940s -- men have traditionally constituted the vast majority of both murderers and murder victims.

After WWII, Chicago's murder rate again began to climb as the city continued growing in size until around 1950. The city's demographics also changed during this period, as increasing automobile ownership and better highways allowed families seeking larger homes to commute from the suburbs, while younger cohorts without children remained in the city (most murderers are drawn from the ranks of 17-24 year olds).

Between 1943 and 1965, Chicago's murder rate rose at a roughly constant rate, increasing by 1 per 100,000 about every three years. However, between 1965 and 1970, the murder rate rose much more dramatically, increasing from 11 per 100,000 in 1965 to 24 per 100,000 in 1970.

Why did the murder rate rise so quickly in the late 1960s? Some point to stricter standards for policing and stronger rights for accused criminals during this period, symbolized by the Miranda case in 1966, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the police must inform arrested persons of their rights before interrogating them. Criminals facing a lower probability of punishment rationally commit more crimes.

There is also some evidence that the generation born after World War II had substantially poorer family formation rates, with an increasing share of children growing up in single-parent households. As I've written elsewhere, as these children reached their late teens and early adulthood -- when offense rates are highest -- in the late 1960s, the quantity of violent crime rose proportionately.
Another potential factor in the growth of crime during this era was the changing consumption patterns and legal status of drugs. The use of heroin and psychodelic drugs increased during the 1960s as production and transportation costs fell, and these drugs also become especially popular among enlisted men and counterculture communities. The pharmacological effects of increased drug consumption -- at least among the class of drugs popular during this period -- on violence are debatable. However, increased usage also led to substantially greater levels of enforcement. Federal prohibition on heroin stretches back to the 1910s, but LSD only became illegal in 1966. Arrests for drug crimes, which were exceptionally rare before 1965, skyrocketed afterwards. With prohibition comes incentives for violence between customers, dealers, and suppliers, who can no longer depend on the courts and police to enforce contracts and mitigate violence.

The war on drugs continued through the 1970s and 1980s. Especially prominent as a source of crime is the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s. Crack was an immediately and immensely popular drug, and its arrival in Chicago kicked off massive and bloody turf wars among rival drug-selling organizations (primarily street gangs) for control of retailing markets in the city.

While crack consumption has not waned much since the 1980s, boundaries between rival sellers have largely been settled. Thus, the end of the "crack epidemic" coincided with big declines in Chicago's murder rate. In the mid-1990s, the murder rate in Chicago (and nationwide) fell dramatically, declining below 50% of its 1992 peak by 2004. Besides the end of the crack epidemic, there are potentially several causes for this remarkable turnaround.

In other cities, such as New York, declines in crime have been attributed to substantial increases in the number of police on the street and to creative policing strategies. Chicago, however, saw little change in the size of its police force, and "broken windows" and other techniques were slow in gaining acceptance at the CPD, although greater efforts towards community engagement, such as the CAPS program, did begin in the early 1990s.

Imprisonment rates also increased during this period, with Illinois holding 27,516 prisoners in 1990 and 45,281 in 2000. With more criminals behind bars, there are fewer on the street committing crime. In addition, an increased likelihood of a lengthy prison sentence likely deters some would-be criminals.

Finally, and most controversially, some researchers have recently pointed to the role of legalized abortion in the evident decline in crime during the 1990s. While some states legalized abortion procedures before 1973, Illinois and most other states saw legalization after the Supreme Court's famous Roe v. Wade decision that year. A large share of women seeking abortions do so because they feel unprepared to raise a child -- and no doubt many of them in fact are poorly prepared for motherhood. After the legalization of abortion, this theory argues, many children, who would have been raised in high-risk environments, were never born. This "missing cohort" would have reached their late teens and early 20s during the early 1990s; thus, the decline in murder rates in the 1990s may be partially due to the fact that many would-be murderers were never born.

The statistical evidence regarding this theory is controversial and, in many places, contradictory. Nevertheless, it is difficult to doubt that at least some of the decline in Chicago's murder rate during the 1990s is due to legalized abortion.

By 2008, Chicago's murder rate was 18.03 per 100,000, roughly the same as it was in 1967. Nevertheless, the city's rate is substantially higher than some other large cities, including New York City (6.3 per 100,000) and Los Angeles (10.0 per 100,000). On the other hand, Chicago is relatively safe compared with Philadelphia (23.0 per 100,000), Detroit (33.8 per 100,000), and Gary, Indiana (73.2 per 100,000).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Saga of Jesse Binga

The cinematic arc of Jesse Binga’s life story – his humble arrival in Chicago with $10 in his pocket, the genius and hard work that took him to the pinnacle of business and social success, and his courage in challenging and overcoming racially-motivated attacks, followed by a stunning bankruptcy, imprisonment, and a pitiful, penniless death – mirror in exaggerated terms the failed hopes of black Chicagoans in the first half of the 20th century. Most of the events in Binga’s life took place here at his home, 5922 South Parkway Blvd. (now 5922 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.)

Jesse Binga was born at Detroit in 1865, one of ten children. His father was a barber, but his mother, Adelphia Powers Binga, was a serial entrepreneur, and became her son’s inspiration throughout his life. As a housing developer, she built “Binga row” houses in the city’s slums. She also operated a food shipment business – the first Great Lakes-caught whitefish ever tasted south of the Mason-Dixon line were transported there by the Bingas.

With ten children in the home, the family was never wealthy. Jesse Binga dropped out of high school and apprenticed to his father as a barber and also worked briefly for a Detroit attorney before setting out to seek his fortune. He worked off and on in barbershops throughout the Midwest, then headed to California, where he found employment as a Pullman porter. In 1893, Binga came to Chicago to attend the World’s Fair that took place that year, arriving with no more than $10 to his name. Remaining in the city after the Fair, Binga spent a few years working at odd jobs before starting a real estate business on south State St., near 33rd street in about 1896.

With his mother’s experience in real estate as an inspiration, Binga threw himself into the business, saying:
Well, I'm going to give it a fair test, and if integrity counts for anything, I'll win. I felt that only prejudice could beat me and I determined that if it did beat me I would go to South America and start life in one of those republics where a man's color is not his crime.
Jesse Binga’s audacious success and rapid climb into the highest echelons of Chicago society meant that he never saw the Andes mountains.

(Pictured: Jesse Binga)

At the turn of the century, only around 20,000 African-Americans called Chicago home, less than 2% of the city’s population. Most of these were concentrated in the so-called “Black Belt” district, which stretched a few blocks on either side of State street south from 22nd street down to 35th street. Chicago was not unusual in its racial homogeneity at the time; most African-Americans in the U.S. lived in southern states, several of which in fact had majority or near-majority black populations. Starting in the 1880s, and especially in the first decades of the 20th century, Jim Crow segregation in much of the South, plus racial persecution by the Ku Klux Klan and other white groups and poor agricultural employment opportunities sent millions of southern Blacks into northern cities, including Chicago. The widespread circulation of the Chicago Defender, the city’s chief African-American newspaper, made Chicago a particular magnet for those seeking jobs and inexpensive housing.

It was these new migrants who made up the core of Jesse Binga’s clientele. When he opened his real estate business in 1896, he paid $10 per month in office rent and bought a battered old desk for $1.50. He ordered 1,000 cards from a printer, but finding himself unable to pay the bill, convinced the printer to let him have 25 proofs as “samples,” which he used until he was able to pay in full. His first profitable project was renting an apartment in the same building where he had his office, then fixing it up and subletting it at a premium.

As black migrants flooded into Chicago, the borders of the Black Belt expanded into historically-white neighborhoods. White residents in these districts were eager to leave as blacks moved in, and Jesse Binga was the city’s major broker between white sellers and black buyers. Binga would buy or rent property from departing white residents, then fix up or subdivide these buildings into smaller apartments demanded by poor southern blacks arriving in the city. In this way, he was able to demand upwards of 50% premia over the purchase price of many properties. Binga placed the advertisement below in the Tribune in 1905:

By the middle of the 1900s decade, Binga was the city’s top black real estate broker, a position he continued to hold for the next twenty years. Explaining his rapid success to a reporter in later years, he emphasized his expertise in construction, and underestimation of his intelligence by business partners, as the twin bases for his success in real estate:
I could do the repair work myself. I could do everything from digging a posthole to topping a chimney. I knew. Many a night I've worked all night on boilers and plumbing, and wiping joints, and mending stairs, and hanging paper. I knew materials and I knew when work was right…

My greatest asset in business -- I won't say that it was altogether my integrity. It was partly the disposition of the average white man to underestimate my knowledge of real estate values. They wouldn't believe that a colored man could take almost any old building and whip it into shape.
Due to discrimination, as well as other factors, many blacks in Chicago faced difficulties in gaining access to adequate credit to finance houses and other large purchases. As with real estate, Jesse Binga realized he could turn racism into profit. Opening his own bank, he would serve customers other banks would not – and this lack of competition meant big revenues. When the white-owned McCarthy Bank at 35th and State failed in 1907, Binga purchased the building and chartered his Binga Bank, a private credit institution.

The bank was an immediate success, and such was Binga’s growing stature in the community that he decided to dabble in politics, running for County Commissioner in 1910. That run failed, and Binga largely turned away from politics for the rest of his life, finding business a much more profitable pursuit. Later, he would explain his disdain for political life: "the double crossing, the knife in the back one day and the handshake the next -- I never took to that. I vote but I don't know today what ward I live in."

(Pictured: political advertisement which appeared in the Chicago Defender in 1910)

In 1911, the Defender, referring to Binga as “Our Only Banker,” sang his encomium:
He was the pioneer in securing good houses and flats for the race and the beginning of his remarkable business along that line has been one of the main factors in the wonderful growth of the citizens of color in Chicago.
The next year, Binga married into the city’s wealthiest and most prominent African-American family, the Johnsons. His bride, Eudora Johnson, was a daughter of famed gambling king John “Mushmouth” Johnson, owner of the massive Emporium Saloon on "Satan’s Mile" (S. State St.) and the upscale Frontenac Club on W. 22nd (some sources claim Eudora was a sister, not a daughter of Mushmouth; as I’ve noted before, the relationships between various Johnson family members were complicated). Supposedly, Eudora inherited over $200,000 from her father, which added to the Binga Bank’s capitalization, making it not only the biggest bank in the Black Belt, but a serious competitor for the business of white depositors as well.

Some have even suggested that Binga married Eudora Johnson exclusively for her money (she was apparently not exactly the picture of pulchritude); more than likely, though, such rumors originated out of jealousy from rival businessmen and renters who resented their landlord. In any case, the Binga-Johnson wedding was the city’s most lavish that year, and, befitting Binga’s growing national stature, even Booker T. Washington sent a letter of congratulations to the newlyweds.

During the next fifteen years, Chicago’s black population, which had already been growing by leaps and bounds, quadrupled in size. Jesse Binga was one of the chief beneficiaries; both his real estate and banking businesses prospered tremendously. Between 1921 and 1924 alone, the bank’s deposits grew from $300,000 to over $1,100,000, and then to nearly $1,500,000 by 1929, a period when real estate values were stagnant and bank failures were not uncommon (through suspensions and closures, the number of banks in Illinois fell from 1,969 in 1920 to 1,806 in 1929).

Binga was Chicago’s leading black citizen, and among its leading citizens of any color. During this period, he opened a “business school” of sorts, the Associated Business Club, wherein black entrepreneurs heard lectures from the city’s top business owners, black and white. He also purchased the home pictured above, at 5922 South Parkway Blvd., in 1917, for the sum of $30,000 (the equivalent of around $500,000 today). The home, located in what was a strictly white neighborhood, overlooks Washington Park, a beautiful and grand park covering more than 70 city blocks.

Jesse Binga’s prominence as a black Chicagoan of means, his activities in “block-busting” – drawing black residents into previously white neighborhoods, and his own purchase of a large home in a white district, made him a target for animosity among whites. Starting during the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, his home on South Park Blvd. was bombed seven times over the next two years. His businesses also suffered repeated bombings. Each time dynamite exploded on his front porch, there would be offers to buy his home, but Binga refused, rebuilt, and remained on South Park Blvd. He placed a private security officer on 24-hour guard for months at a time, and even publicly offered a $1,000 reward for the conviction of the bombers, but none were ever caught. He told the Defender (partially in response to criticism from blacks that he had moved out of the Black Belt),
I am an American citizen, a Christian and a property owner. No man can make of me a traitor or a coward. No power on earth can change my faith in God. I will defend my home and personal liberty to the extent of my life….I have just as much right to enjoy my home at Washington Park as any one else to go there and play tennis or baseball or enjoy other advantages of the district. It is a personal privilege. I went there to live because I liked the house and I had a chance to buy it....I do not want to get away from anybody, but absolutely refuse to live in a neighborhood inhabited by the lower class of white trash.
Despite his dislike of politics, Binga consistently went on the record in favor of greater state regulation of private, unincorporated banks like his own. At first blush, it may seem unusual for a businessman to favor greater regulation of his own industry, since the costs of complying with regulations can be high. However, regulatory costs are largely fixed costs – that is, independent of the size of the business – which means only the largest and best-capitalized firms will be able to remain in business. In banking, for instance, most regulations require higher levels of capitalization and more layers of accounting. By 1920, the chief threat to the Binga Bank’s profitability wasn’t greater regulation; it was competing black bankers. State regulation was a way to cripple the competition, and in that year, Binga, along with other major Chicago bankers, succeeded in eliminating private banks. After 1920, all banks had to have state or federal charters, and no less than $100,000 in capital. The Binga Bank – renamed Binga State Bank – was the only Black Belt bank able to meet such requirements.

Binga also associated his bank with the Chicago Clearing House, an association of local banks that could – but were not obligated to – supply cash on demand to a member bank if that bank suffered a run on its deposits. In those days before federal deposit insurance (FDIC), although banks were generally more conservative as investors, they were at greater risk of devastating bank runs (see the more extensive discussion of banking before FDIC in this post), so Clearing House membership added a degree of assurance to depositors. And because a potential run could become quite expensive, only the city’s top banks were allowed to become Clearing House members.

In 1926, Binga purchased property at the center of the Black Belt, on the northwest corner of 35th and State, on which he built a new $120,000 structure to house the Binga State Bank. It was the most expensive single building in the district. Constructed of marble and bronze, the exterior reflected a rich Ionic architecture, and the interior featured walnut paneling and a massive steel vault. 50 bank employees, all African Americans, were skimmed from the top of the community’s talent pool, and featured college degrees from the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Oberlin College, among other institutions. Behind a massive glass and marble desk overlooking them all was Jesse Binga, the high-school drop-out and former barber and Pullman porter.

(Pictured: The Binga State Bank building at 35th and State streets)

In 1927, Binga purchased more property at 35th and State, and built an even grander structure, the Binga Arcade, a $500,000 5-story modern office building, which would house all of the Binga empire, as well as offices for other black-owned businesses. There was no building anything like it south of Van Buren St. in the Loop.

During this period, income among African Americans in Chicago was growing substantially, and Jesse Binga was a leading symbol of the community’s hopes. His success made him a celebrity. He wrote weekly columns on business and real estate for the Defender, and published a book entitled “Certain Saying of Jesse Binga,” which included such pearls of wisdom as
Nothing is so easy or so wasteful as the work of hating -- except hating work.

You can be a menial or a man of business. But to get out of the menial place requires the thrift that produces property. And property enlarges life. Work, then, not for gain alone but for the enlarged life that honest gains create.

Life is pretty much what you make it -- and making it big means using every day of it.
In 1929, at the height of his success, 64-year old Jesse Binga began soliciting funds for a second bank, this one with a federal, instead of a state, charter. It was to be his crowning achievement, his lasting legacy to Chicago before retirement. Binga purchased property on South Parkway Blvd., near 46th Pl., for the new bank building, and sold shares in the business to investors. He had little trouble finding eager subscribers to the new bank. What could go wrong, after all? There was no better bet in Chicago than Jesse Binga.

Unfortunately, no one, least of all Binga himself, foresaw the end of the prosperity of the 1920s. In late October, 1929, the great stock market crash eliminated millions of dollars of industrial value. At around the same time, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff act, which limited imports and exports, destroying well-established businesses and isolating the U.S. from the world economy. Failing businesses had difficulty servicing their loans, and so undercapitalized banks began to fail throughout the country. At the same time, many depositors, fearing the insolvency of banks and needing additional cash to cover income lost in the broadening downturn, removed money from banks. Banks were caught in a vice.

In 1928, 18 Illinois banks had their operations suspended by the state; 1929 saw that number rise to 30, but these were not especially high numbers relative to the previous years of the 1920s. The middle of 1930, however, saw Chicago’s banking industry begin to crater, and the Binga State Bank was the “canary in the coal mine.” By July, the bank was facing serious shortages of capital and had suspended lending. Binga lent much of his own personal fortune in an attempt to keep the bank afloat, but to no avail. On July 31, 1930, Illinois bank auditors closed the Binga State Bank, alleging insolvency and accounting improprieties. As the shock of the event rippled through the city, thousands of worried depositors congregated at 35th and State, and two policemen had to maintain 24-hour watch to protect the building. A pall hung over the crowd, many of whose members had entrusted their life’s savings in the bank. Worse still was the crushed pride of seeing the African-American community’s leading citizen forced out of his commanding business position.

(Pictured: depositors milling around outside Binga State Bank on July 31, 1930)

Behind the scenes, auditors were also preparing a criminal case against Jesse Binga. In their audit of Binga State Bank, the funds that had been subscribed for the new national bank, announced in 1929, were found missing. Authorities gave the bank’s board of directors a few days to raise $400,000 needed to make the bank solvent, and the directors were amenable to the request – but only if the tarnished president, Jesse Binga, stepped down. Binga refused to do so, clinging to the bank he had built up from a single $10 bill, the bank he had poured his entire life savings into in an attempt to forestall its failure.

Next, the Chicago Clearing House, of which Binga State Bank was a member, met to decide whether to supply it with sufficient funds to re-open. Likely other banks in the association were suffering under similar distress, and so the Clearing House members were not keen on taking the risk to prop up Binga State Bank, especially if the rumors of embezzlement by Binga were true. Perhaps, too, racism played a role. Later, one member would describe a conclave of Clearing House members in which the meeting chairman said that Binga State Bank was “a little n----- bank that does not mean anything.” It was the first closure of a Clearing House member bank in twenty years.

In any case, by October, 1930, Binga State Bank had failed, and thousands of depositors’ savings were completely gone. December saw Binga forced into personal bankruptcy and hounded by creditors. Even his wife, Eudora, turned against him, filing suit in court, charging him with incompetency in managing the family’s financial affairs and asking that the court appoint a conservator to handle what little money was left.

The failure of the Binga Bank kicked off a massive string of bank failures in Chicago. From 30 Illinois bank suspensions in 1929, 1930 saw an uptick to 125. Another 238 banks suspended operations in 1931, then 209 more in 1932 and an additional 245 in 1933. The number of banks in the state fell by more than half in four years. If the state regulations of 1920 that shut down the private banking business were intended to protect depositors, they failed miserably. If Chicago Clearing House members thought allowing Binga State Bank to fail would not lead to further runs on banks in the city, they were completely wrong.

In April, 1931, a court handed down an indictment against Jesse Binga for embezzling $39,000 in pledges for the proposed national bank on South Park and 46th, which had never opened. Over 80 witnesses testified at trial against Binga, but Binga’s attorneys argued that a state law precluded capital funds for a national bank from being held in a state bank – thus explaining why Binga had held these funds in his own personal account, but not explaining where the funds had gone. The jury was hung, and the judge decreed a mistrial.

The state’s attorney immediately began preparing a second trial, which, after a long series of continuances, began in May, 1933. Two months before, in March, Eudora Binga died, likely from stress due to the stress of financial dissolution and personal antagonism with her husband.

At the second trial, the state added to its list of witness the #2 officer at the Binga State Bank, Mrs. Inez Cantey. When asked about the events precipitating the closure of the bank and the misappropriation of funds, she repeatedly admitted wrongdoing – “with the permission of Mr. Binga”.

With his chief lieutenant turned against him, Jesse Binga likely knew he was headed for a conviction. He took the stand in his defense, breaking down in tears as he exclaimed,
They're persecuting me. They have killed my wife and now they're trying to kill me. I've lost all I owned; now they're persecuting me. Stop this thing or I'll go mad!"
A few days later, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. In November, 1933, Binga was sentenced to serve 1 – 10 years in state prison. He managed to remain free while awaiting an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, but when that court denied the appeal, a 70-year old Jesse Binga entered Joliet prison in April, 1935. He was immediately transferred to the hospital ward for treatment of a heart condition, and most observers fully expected him to die in prison.

11 months later, at his first parole hearing, Chicago’s – and the nation’s – most famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, appeared on behalf of Jesse Binga. "I have known Binga for thirty years and he is a man of fine character. He lost a fortune trying to keep his bank open."

The appeal was denied, but his next parole hearing in February, 1938 was a success. At that hearing, prison officers were presented with a list of 10,000 signatures from Chicago residents, requesting the release of Binga. Many of the signatories were among those who lost money in the failed Binga State Bank.

After being released from prison, Binga moved back into his home on South Parkway Blvd. Completely broke and in poor health, he nevertheless managed to keep creditors from taking his home by working as a janitor at his church, St. Anselm’s on S. Michigan Ave., near 60th St.

In April, 1941, Jesse Binga received some belated relief in the form of a pardon from Illinois Governor Dwight Green. But it was too little to salvage much of his tarnished reputation. Soon after, Binga finally sold his home and moved in with a nephew, Albert Roberts (the Bingas had no children). Jesse Binga died in 1950.

The Binga State Bank, formerly the emerald of the Black Belt, remained closed until 1943, when it was reopened as the Phoenix National Bank under new ownership. Together with the Binga Arcade, the bank building was demolished in the 1970s, replaced by an Illinois Institute of Technology building.

Binga’s home on South Parkway Blvd., however, still stands (though apparently renovated extensively), though the street was renamed Martin Luther King Dr. in the late 1960s. In fact, it is even for sale. The formerly all-white neighborhood where Jesse Binga courageously stood against dynamite attacks in 1919-1921 is now almost entirely populated by black residents.

[Update: See the interesting additional information below in the comments from a Binga nephew]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Lehr-und-Wehr Verein and the Second Amendment

The 1870s were a period of increasingly violent clashes between workers and employers in Chicago and throughout the U.S. The eight-hour workday movement was emboldened by weak economic conditions prevailing throughout most of that decade, and anarchists began publicly advocating resistance against industrialists and strike-breakers. Employers hired armed guards, including Pinkerton detectives, to defend their personal and business interests, and state governments began forming organized militias to put down insurrections. In response, German socialists and anarchists in Chicago formed the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein.

A rough translation of Lehr-und-Wehr Verein is “Education and Resistence Association,” and the group’s state charter, signed by the governor of Illinois in April, 1875, indicated
The Association is formed for the purpose of improving the mental and bodily condition of its members so as to qualify them for the duties of citizens of the Republic. Its members shall therefore obtain in the meetings of the Association a knowledge of our laws and political economy, and shall also be instructed in military and gymnastic exercises.
There were four Lehr-und-Wehr Verein companies in Chicago which met weekly for drill exercises and instruction. Once each month, all four groups converged at Neff’s Hall, a saloon and assembly hall located at 58 Clybourn (now numbered 1265 N. Clybourn Ave.), which is the building pictured above. Their marching uniforms consisted of blue shirts, black hats, and white rucksacks, paired with light-colored linen pants. At socialist picnics, outings, and conventions, they held shooting contests and mock battles, and marched in columns four men wide, carrying a variety of firearms, everything from squirrel pellet guns to .45 caliber rifles and .44 caliber revolvers. Besides support they received directly from socialist political parties, the organization held fundraisers throughout the year, using monies raised to purchase additional armaments.

(Pictured: a Lehr-und-Wehr Verein drill. Image courtesy of Northwestern University Law School).

While socialists and anarchists had long argued that working men needed to arm themselves to enforce their rights, the formal organization of the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein may have been precipitated by the establishment of the Illinois National Guard in 1874. Though privately financed (primarily by wealthy Chicagoans) the Guard was the first organized militia in the state. In March, 1875, one month before the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein was chartered, the first regiment of the Illinois National Guard mustered with arms at a socialist riot in front of city hall.

While the Verein’s state charter was anodyne, its obvious purpose was to protect socialist interests in battles with business interests, police, and the National Guard. In a letter to the Tribune, Hermann Chilz, secretary of the organization wrote explicitly:
The preparations of the workingmen…are simply a necessity in order to protect themselves against future murderous attacks like the one which was made by the police last year against peaceably assembled workingmen.
Likely Chilz is referring to an infamous case during the Great Strike of 1877 in which, during negotiations between Furniture Workers’ Union members and their employers on W. 12th Street, Chicago police broke down the door and began shooting and beating workers as they tried to escape.

Similarly, Chicago’s socialist newspaper the Arbeiter-Zeitung wrote in June, 1875,
Inasmuch as the bourgeoisie of this place are building up a servile militia with its powers directed against the working man, the workingmen, man for man, should join the … organization and willingly give the few dollars necessary to arm and uniform themselves. When the workingmen are on their guard, their just demands will not be answered with bullets.
The sight of armed groups of socialists marching through the streets of the city alarmed many Chicagoans, especially the wealthy, who had more to lose should a general insurrection arise. They perceived the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein as a threat against law and order, and against their life and property. The aforementioned Great Strike of 1877, although it had lasted only a week, showed that collaborative protest by the working classes was possible and could bring the country’s economy to a standstill. During the strike, Marshall Field and other merchants armed their employees and George Pullman organized a “Law and Order League,” which roamed through the city’s neighborhoods armed with rifles. Armed vigilante groups and private and battalions of Civil War veterans also worked to disperse assemblies of striking workers. Labor historian Paul Avrich writes that for business leaders,
…the chief lesson of the strike was the need for a stronger apparatus of repression. Along with press and pulpit, they called for a reorganization of the military forces, so that in the future they might be able to deal more effectively with popular outbursts. The erection of government armories in the centers of American cities dates from this period. State militias were reorganized and strengthened. Special manuals on riot duty and street fighting became prescribed reading for local and federal forces. In Chicago, a Citizens’ Association, spurred by Marshall Field, was established “to fight communists.” The police began to conduct themselves in the matter of an army, drilling regularly in street maneuvers and learning to “handle themselves like soldiers.” [The Haymarket Tragedy, p. 35]
The fear of armed socialist groups is reflected in the following poem, printed in an 1878 weekly version of the Arbeiter-Zeitung:

Our Dear Police
(by Gustav Lyser)

They say our dear Chicago police
Are pretty sore these days,
It seems the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein
Has led their minds astray

It teaches constitutional truths
For all – not just th’ elite,
And that no one the right to assemble
May trample under his feet!

It teacher what is guaranteed,
And read it each man might
To liberty, life, pursuit of happiness
We have a common right!

It teaches how we must defend
‘Gainst tyrrany’s reckless flood;
That freedom much from us demands –
May e’en demand our blood!

That’s why our dear Chicago police
Are pretty sore these days;
For such a Lehr-und-Wehr Verein
Has set their fears ablaze.

As the poem suggests, the issue quickly become a constitutional question. The second amendment to the Constitution reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
In the 19th century, the “militia”, as defined in both federal and state code, included all (white male) citizens; hence, one reading of the the second amendment is that it precludes the government from disarming its citizens, who have the right use force to defend their freedom from tyrants or foreign invaders. This is certainly how the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein read the amendment. At the same time, courts of the era also interpreted the Bill of Rights to apply narrowly to the federal government exclusively; thus, the U.S. Congress could make no law infringing the right to bear arms, but the states could.

In May, 1879, Illinois did just that, passing the Militia Bill, sections 5 and 6 of which read:
Sec. 5 It shall not be lawful for any body of men whatever, other than the regular organized volunteer militia of this state, and the troops of the United States, to associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or to drill or parade with arms in any city or town of this state, without the license of the governor thereof, which license may at any time be revoked….Provided, that nothing herein contained shall be construed so as to prevent benevolent or social organizations from wearing swords.

Sec. 6. Whoever offends against the provisions of the preceding section, or belongs to, or parades with, any such unauthorized body of men with arms, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding the sum of ten dollars, ($10,) or by imprisonment in the common jail for a term not exceeding six months, or both.
The statute, with most of the same language (including the amusing bit about wearing swords), is still on the Illinois books today (See Sections 94 and 101 here; 130 years later, the original $10 fine has been increased to “not less than $20 nor more than $100”).

The 1879 Militia law was specifically aimed at armed socialists groups like the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein, the membership of which had grown dramatically since the Great Strike. While no reliable sources exist, the total number of Lehr-und-Wehr Verein members likely exceeded 1,000 at its peak, and may have been as high as 3,000. Verein members saw in the law’s provision for licenses granted by the governor an attempt by the state to monopolize the use of force, and to direct it against groups with little political power, especially workers.

On July 2, 1879, the new law was put to the test when a group of Lehr-und-Wehr Verein, led by their captain, Frank Bielefeldt, marched with arms through Chicago. Bielefeldt was arrested and charged with violation of the militia law. The case was heard in Cook County Criminal Court in late July, and Bielefeldt triumphed. The court held that the right to bear arms was an inherent, inalienable right, independent of any law passed in Illinois or elsewhere, and that arming oneself is “an unconditioned and undeniable right, militia or no militia.”

The Judge in the case also argued that, while the Second Amendment (and other aspects of the Bill of Rights) had not applied to state laws before the Civil War, this was no longer the case after the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868, the text of which reads (in part): “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The right to bear arms being one of the privileges accorded to U.S. citizens by their constitution, the states were thus restricted from abridging that right.

The court further agreed with the socialists that the militia law unnecessarily politicized self-defense, arguing that the statute “empowers the Governor in the granting or withholding of licenses to make odious discriminations based on politics, religion, class interests, nationality, place or similar considerations repugnant to the genius of our institutions and subversive of constitutional equality.”

The case, which was decided 2-1, was a startling victory for the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein, and inspired the conservative Tribune to attribute to the decision epithets including “irrelevant” and “puerile;” nevertheless, its effect was to be short-lived. In the fall of 1878, the Illinois Supreme Court judged in a separate case that the Illinois National Guard, not the public at large, was the state militia; as a consequence, Governor Shelby Cullom announced that the militia law would be sternly enforced against the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein: no one but the militia would be allowed to parade with arms without the Governor's permission. However, since the ultimate question of constitutionality had still not been decided by the courts, the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein prompty offered an opportunity for them to do so.

On September 24, 1879, Hermann Presser, mounted on horseback, led a march in Chicago of 400 Lehr-und-Wehr Verein members carrying firearms. Presser was arrested, convicted in circuit court, and fined the statutory $10. The case was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which confirmed Presser’s conviction, at which point the case was again appealed the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court took its time, and did not hear oral arguments until 1885. In the mean time, the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein continued to hold meetings and drills, but did not march publicly without permission (in one instance in 1880, the Governor did grant permission to the group for a public display). The growing anarchist movement intertwined with the Verein’s membership, and many of the city’s foremost firebrands, including those advocating revolution, were members. One of the most zealous of the future Haymarket defendants, Adolph Fischer, was a member. The pages of the Arbeiter-Zeitung persistently urged workers to arm themselves, especially with dynamite, to assist in the coming war with the industrialist elite.

At the Supreme Court, former U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull represented Presser, arguing in terms similar to those that had been issued in the earlier Bielefeldt case, a de-politicization of the militia:
“To bear arms,” then in the constitutional sense, means to bear the weapons of civilized warfare, and to become instructed in their use. But this is drilling, officering, organizing; therefore, these are claimed to be part and parcel, of the same impregnable right, and placed by the supreme law of the land, beyond the reach of infringement by the provisions of any military code or, the precarious will, and license of whoever may happen to be Governor.
In January, 1886, the Supreme Court released its ruling in the case of Presser v. Illinois. The constitutionality or lack thereof of the Illinois National Guard, which had played a substantial role in the defense's case, was irrelevant, the justices argued; only sections 5 and 6 of the militia law, under which Presser was convicted, were relevant. Turning the Court’s attention to these sections, the decision affirmed that the Bill of Rights did not apply to state laws:
We think it clear that the sections under consideration, which only forbid bodies of men to associate together as military organizations, or to drill or parade with arms in cities and towns unless authorized by law, do not infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms. But a conclusive answer to the contention that this amendment prohibits the legislation in question lies in the fact that the amendment is a limitation only upon the power of congress and the national government, and not upon that of the state.

…[T]he right of the people to keep and bear arms is not a right granted by the constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed, but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government…
The Court further opined that states need the ability to regulate free assembly and firearm ownership in order “to suppress armed mobs bent on riot and rapine.”

After the ruling in Presser, the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein would never again exercise in public, and the anarchist movement in the United States went into the decline. Just four months later, the Haymarket riot led to the imprisonment (and, for some, death) of most of the city’s anarchist leaders. Coincidentally or not, the judge who presided over the trial of the Haymarket defendants was the one dissenting member of the panel that ruled in favor of the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein in the Bielefeldt case.

A decade after Presser, U.S. courts began developing the doctrine of “incorporation,” essentially the same argument as the Cook County Criminal Court made in the Bielefeldt case – that the 14th amendment implies that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws as well as to the federal government. Over the next hundred years, most of the Bill of Rights was so "incorporated," including the first amendment rights of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and the fifth amendment protections against double jeopardy and self-incrimination. Notably, however, the Supreme Court has never ruled that the second amendment applies to the states; hence, Presser v. Illinois is still a standard citation in cases throughout the country upholding local ordinances banning handgun ownership.

That is likely to change soon. The Presser case was recently denigrated as outmoded by Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in its ruling (see p. 48, n23) last summer against the Washington, D.C. handgun ban. That case, however, did not decide the question of whether the second amendment applies to the states since the District of Columbia is not a state. Nevertheless, barring unexpected changes in the Court’s membership, most observers expect a decision in the next few terms will extend “incorporation” to the second amendment. Will we then see a return of the Lehr-und-Wehr Verein?

Neff’s hall, where the Verein once met for their general assembly and military drills, still stands on Clybourn Ave. While the Verein were active, it was commonly used by anarchists to store dynamite and other weapons. It was frequented in particular by Louis Lingg, the most violent of the Haymarket defendents, who committed suicide in jail before his execution. Known as Thueringer Hall in the 1880s, the building was later home to a hosiery shop in the 1950s. Today, it appears to be vacant.

[Several of the quotes in this post (particularly the poem from the Arbeiter-Zeitung and the clippings from the defense brief in Presser) were found in Stephen P. Halbrook's Summer 1999 article in the University of Detroit Mercey Law Review, "The Right of Workers to Assemble and to Bear Arms: Presser v. Illinois, One of the Last Holdouts Against Application of the Bill of Rights to the States".]

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Conservative Vice Lords, Inc.

Can a group of street gang members with long police records, high school dropouts for whom drunkenness and violence were the core of daily life, one day decide to found a community development organization and become successful businessmen? Between 1967 and 1970, the Vice Lords, once the west side’s most feared gang, attempted just this. Their surprising successes and ultimately, crushing failure, symbolized the cycle of ghetto idealism during that period. At their peak, the Lords owned and operated five businesses in the 3700 block of W. 16th Street (pictured) alone, plus several others nearby.

Founded in the late 1950s by a group of seven juvenile delinquents, the leader of whom had been rejected by other street gangs, the Conservative Vice Lords’ reign of terror in the North Lawndale neighborhood between 1957 and 1964 was singularly violent. Other gangs in the area, like the Imperial Chaplains, Cobras, Morphines, Clovers, and Continental Pimps, were primarily social societies, holding parties and dances, although fights frequently broke out. The Vice Lords, in contrast, were primarily a fight club where members boxed and wrestled each other during the day, then went out at night and used knives, Molotov cocktails, and pistols to take control of turf from other gangs and terrorize residents. I have already written of one example of the extreme violence of which the Vice Lords were capable during this period.

By 1964, the Lords had 28 “sets” – micro gangs controlling a particular block or two – and up to 10,000 members, and they patrolled the vast majority of the territory between Pulaski and Western Aves., and from Lake St. south to Ogden. But by this point, some of the founding members, who were 16-18 years old when the gang began, were reaching maturity and had families. With the broader view maturity brings, they saw the destruction their activities had brought upon the neighborhood and the attraction of power and money that would continue to draw disaffected youth into the gang. They were also afraid of some of the younger Vice Lords.

Among these leaders were Edward Perry, sometimes known as “Pep” or “Peppilow,” the founder of the gang, his second-in-command (and cousin of Eugene Hairson, founder of the Blackstone Rangers), Leonard Calloway, Alfonso Alford, a former construction worker who took over Perry’s spot at the top of the gang that year, plus Bobby Gore, an early member who would later become the public face of the group. In July, 1964, this group was hanging around getting drunk on the corner of 16th and Lawndale, when a younger gang member approached them to propose a violent attack on a rival gang. Realizing the cycle of violence they had started (and possibly also realizing they might no longer be able to control it for their own purposes), Alford suggested the group do something constructive by opening businesses in the neighborhood.

The idea of opening a business wasn’t immediately feasible – while the gang held control over the streets of North Lawndale, they had little money, and no business experience – but Perry, Calloway, Alford, Gore, and other leadership members began looking for ways to use their street power for positive change. Turf wars with rival west side gangs diminished during the mid-1960s, and the Lords began meeting with the police, especially the new, black commander of the nearby Fillmore Street station, George Sims. Of course, the Lords were still a violent gang, but they realized that in order to grow further, they would need the support, not merely the fear, of residents.

(Pictured: Conservative Vice Lord members at a fundraising drive for the American Cancer Society)

The nascent civil rights movement was also critical in the Lords’ attempts to break from their violent past. As one Lord later put it,
The militants came in and say why be a gangbanger and kill each other when you can kill the honky, and we began to see that the enemy was not black. Elzy, who was about twenty and had been on the streets for eight years as a Royal Knight and junior Vice Lord, felt that “we were scared of the honkies, but this awareness thing has kicked all that b---s--- aside and made you think of what you really are.” (Dawley, David. A Nation of Lords: The Autobiography of the Vice Lords, Waveland Press, 1973).
Many impoverished black residents of Chicago were inspired by the Watts riots of 1965, and during the summer of 1966, the west side erupted in rioting after the police released a white man who had attacked and killed a black man with a baseball bat. Vice Lord members were heavily involved in the rioting and looting that followed. Media attention paid to the impoverished area brought greater awareness by police and politicians, as well as efforts by national black organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to bring peace to Lawndale. Everyone especially wanted to find a way to reach and reform the “hard core” youth who had been at the center of the riots, and who would likely continue to make trouble.

Martin Luther King, Jr., even moved into the neighborhood, living in an apartment on 16th street at Hamlin for a few months. He specifically attempted to work with the major street gangs of the city, inviting the Vice Lords, Blackstone Rangers, and Gangster Disciples to a Soldier Field rally, and reaching out to their leadership for cooperation. While the Vice Lords were flattered by the attention, they were also suspicious of King’s intentions as an outsider, and the relationship was generally cool. As one Lord said,
Gangbangers were involved [in rioting] because young dudes just didn’t have any other way to go. This was just a helluva way to let go of the frustrations and depression. The civil rights organizations that came to Chicago were not working with the hard-core people anyway. They were supposed to have been for the grass root but the middle class was running them. They didn’t know the people. The people who wouldn’t mind being in a riot were never touched. They were still out there standing on the corners, laying in the alleys, and in the summertime sleeping in the park at night. (Dawley, ibid)
During a heavy snow storm in the winter of 1967, the police were unable to penetrate the streets of Lawndale, and the Vice Lords again led looting efforts of white-owned stores on the west side. There were also rumors that the Black Panther Party was heavily recruiting in the neighborhood, and was attempting to foment rioting. Everyone predicted that the summer of 1967 would be even more violent than 1966, and so special efforts to reach out to the Vice Lords’ leadership were made by city politicians, Commander Sims, and west side business owners.

24th ward Alderman George Collins pledged that if there were no serious rioting or gang violence incidents during the summer, the Alderman would help the gang open a restaurant that fall. Commander Sims’ efforts to befriend gang leaders began to show fruit when, in August of 1967, one Lord set, the Albany Vice Lords, turned over to him one of their members who had been implicated in a slaying. The Tribune reported:
The gang leaders also tipped police as to the location of the murder weapon which was found in a garbage can in the rear of 1116 S. Whipple st. Sgt. John Hawkins said that since the gang began cooperating with the police more than 12 guns have been surrendered. Hawkins said the 16-year old was surrendered because the gang leaders feared Sims thought the shooting was a gang slaying and would “put the heat” on he neighborhood. In return for their cooperation , Commander Sims has been finding jobs for gang members and has met frequently with them to seek solutions to their problems, Hawkins said. One gang member, who declined to identify himself, said the group was aiding police as “a matter of self-survival”.
Another article around the same time noted:
The commander attributes his success to the belief that he has offered the young men in the community an alternative to the black power militants, to whom they would otherwise be attracted and the white social workers, whom they reject. Since he took over the district in June, 1965, he and his four plainclothes intelligence men have been meeting regularly with the gang members, “not just as police, but as men who know the score and talk the same language.”…. Sims’ major objective is to eliminate the gangs as warring factions but retain their top men as leaders in the community.
Major west side businesses, including retailer Carson, Pirie, & Scott and Sears Roebuck, afraid of the losses they would incur if rioting erupted, formed a cooperative group called Operation Bootstrap with the Vice Lords and two other west side gangs, the Roman Saints (a Vice Lord derivative gang) and the Cobras, long-time Lord rivals. The group held meetings throughout late summer 1967 to organize constructive dialogue between gang members and business leaders.

Another momentous event that summer was the arrival in the neighborhood of a highly unlikely prospective Vice Lord member, David Dawley. Dawley, a self-described “tenth generation WASP whose ancestors landed at Newburyport, Massachusetts and later moved by ox sled to Bath, New Hampshire,” grew up in Westminster, Mass., where he became an Eagle Scout, then graduated at Dartmouth College in 1963. After college, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Honduras helping communities organize banks and health clinics. Upon his return to the United States in 1965, he became involved in community organizing, radical politics, and civil rights, marching through Mississippi with Stokely Carmichael in 1966. In 1967, Dawley took a summer job with the TransCentury Corporation, a non-profit Washington DC survey firm which had a government grant to evaluate urban youth attitudes towards federally-funded social programs. TransCentury sent Dawley to Lawndale to conduct surveys, and he took up residence at the Kedzie YMCA.

In those days, the west side was not a safe place for whites. As gang leader Bobby Gore later wrote,
…this guy had come over on Kedzie and Madison at night during the Black Power era. And he came by himself – nobody brought him. With all the bad press we were getting, I thought he was a gutsy guy for being there. (Dawley, ibid)
(Pictured: David Dawley)

Dawley quickly learned that the Vice Lords ran the west side, and anyone who wanted to understand conditions among youth there needed to deal with the Lords. He started telling people he wanted to meet with the gang leaders and putting himself in places where Vice Lords congregated. One of the Lords’ major charitable efforts that summer was a series of fundraisers to help poor blacks in Mississippi, the plight of whom had recently been highlighted by civil rights efforts there. Black power slogans and threats of mayhem and revolution were a regular part of these fundraising events, and police in riot gear typically attended. Early in the summer, Dawley attended one such event at the Senate movie house, and was the only white person in the packed 3,000-person auditorium. During the speeches, he felt a hand touch his shoulder and a voice tell him to go to the lobby if he wanted to meet Vice Lords leadership.

Dawley complied and a brief meeting with Perry and Gore led to a more extensive conversation at Vice Lords headquarters in the pool room at 3720 W. 16th. Dawley hired Gore and several other Lords as interviewers and consultants, and kept in constant touch with the gang, slowly gaining their confidence. During that summer, he lived in Lawndale and, if not for his close links with the Vice Lords, likely would not have lived through the season. As he put it,
Out of thirty friends, I was the only one who two years later hadn’t been shot, cut, wounded or killed. My first apartment was set on fire; I had a gun pointed to my head and my car was shot, but when the West Side rioted after Martin Luther King was killed, I walked through the flames with tape recorder and camera. (Dawley, ibid)
At the end of the summer, Dawley returned to Washington and finished his report for TransCentury, then loaded up his old Volkswagen and returned to Lawndale in November to continue working with the Vice Lords, this time with an eye to turning the gang into a serious political and social force in Chicago.

With Dawley’s help, the gang incorporated as a non-profit organization in September, 1967: Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. They then applied for, and received, a $15,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was matched with an equal amount from the corporate members of Operation Bootstrap. This was followed by $25,000 from the Field Foundation, $130,000 from the Ford Foundation, $36,000 from the Department of Labor, and $60,000 from philanthropist W. Clement Stone. These groups saw partnership with the Vice Lords as a way to reach those most desperately in need. As Bobby Gore, gang spokesperson, put it, “We are of the same community and on the same level as community people. The average man in the street can’t articulate to people wearing ties.”

With these funds, Dawley and CVL, Inc. turned the north side of the 3700 block of W. 16th St. (pictured above), which had previously been a strip of dilapidated, mostly abandoned buildings, into a thriving business and community center. Between the fall of 1967 and 1969, the gang opened:

Teen Town, an ice cream parlor catering to youth, opened with the help of Ald. Collins and Operation Bootstrap, at 3700 W. 16th.

The African Lion, an afro-centric clothing shop, at 3702 W. 16th. Behind the African Lion, a garden was planted underneath a large mural depicting black history in the United States.

(Pictured: the interior of The African Lion, clothing store run by CVL, Inc.)

The House of Lords, a recreation center for teens with ping-pong, jukeboxes, books, and card tables, at 3724 W. 16th (a second House of Lords was later opened at 3414 W. 15th).

Art and Soul, a free, open-door facility for community members to paint and engage with art, opened in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission, and the University of Illinois – Circle Campus (now known as University of Illinois – Chicago), at 3742 W. 16th.

(Pictured: an onlooker watches a young artist during a CVL "open house" at Art and Soul)

CVL, Inc., also opened two Tastee Freez franchises, one at 18th St. and Pulaski Rd., and the other at California Ave. and Fluornoy St. In Vice Lords headquarters at 3720 W. 16th, the gang used Department of Labor funds to start a management training institute to develop business skill. They also planned an Avon-like cosmetics line called “Simone,” with color tones made especially for black women, and marketed the product in conjunction with entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., although it seems that Simone never actually got off the ground.

During the summer of 1968, the Catholic School Board awarded CVL, Inc. 100 neighborhood youth jobs to clean and beautify public areas. The gang also organized a tenants’ rights pressure group which assisted neighborhood residents in negotiations with landlords. There were also July 4th and Christmas dinners open to the public at gang headquarters. In 1969, the Vice Lords, along with other major Chicago street gangs, including the Gangster Disciples and the Black P. Stones, worked together with civil rights groups to demand more jobs for blacks in Chicago’s traditionally white labor unions. The gangs disrupted scores of building sites on the south and west sides, including the University of Chicago’s new school of social work, and McCormick Place. CVL was becoming not only a community organization but a major political force in Chicago.

With the help of CVL, Inc., the crime rate in Lawndale actually fell in 1969, while it rose substantially throughout most of the rest of the city. Thus, in 1968, the future seemed practically unlimited for the former violent gang members and their community; however, a number of factors led to the decline and fall of CVL, Inc., eventually returning it to its former status as a tough street gang.

First, with the exception of Dawley, CVL leadership were high-school drop-outs, not MBAs. Maintaining a successful business is difficult for anyone, and most new business fail; the gang’s lack of management skill compounded this problem. In addition, unlike other business-owners, CVL chose the locations for their retail shops not based on proximity to customers, visibility, or liklihood of profit, but a desire to invest in a particular neighborhood. The group was explicitly protectionist, believing that operating businesses in Lawndale instead of other areas “kept the money in the neighborhood”. As one Lord put it,
I want to be able to run our own community. If we get this to rollin’, we don’t need that honky. I want out own black banks, our own black currency exchange – I don’t want no honky to take my check and take forty or fifty cents: I want a brother to take it. I know when them honkies take it, its goin’ back out to Oak Park or Lake Forest; it ain’t doin’nothin’ for the black community. (Dawley, ibid)
In general, this type of “local self-sufficiency” is the route to poverty (Cuba and North Korea also have only their own banks and currency exchanges and do not rely on trade with neighboring countries, and they have failed to become rich for it). For all of these reasons, even if nothing else had gone wrong, the economic deck was stacked against the long-term success of CVL, Inc.

Moreover, while Vice Lord leadership were using these programs to remake themselves into a bona fide community and political powerhouse, many of the thousands of rank-and-file Lords members, who were still facing conditions of poverty and blight (CVL, Inc., leaders took yearly salaries between $10,000 - $15,000; Dawley never revealed his own salary), continued to act as violent criminals. Traditionally, leadership of a street gang goes to the biggest, strongest, and most violent members, and these leaders must constantly be on guard against newer, younger members, who attempt to prove themselves even more violent than their leaders. This is how the Vice Lords had always operated, and now Perry, Alford, Gore, and others, who by the late 1960s were in their late 20s, faced thousands of power-hungry teenagers bent on rising in the gang hierarchy, especially a subgroup of young Vice Lords calling themselves the Black Aces. Thus, violence was difficult to avoid.

October, 1967, saw inter-gang warfare between the Vice Lords and the Cermak Boys over turf. More shootings involving Lords occurred in May and November, 1968, the latter of which involved the death of a 5 year-old boy. In July, 1968, CVL President Alfonso Alford was arrested and charged with murder, though he was acquitted two months later. In May, 1969, gang member Robert Weatherall (brother of one of the original Vice Lords), was shot and killed point blank in front of Teen Town, and the shooter then entered Vice Lords headquarters next door, where he shot and wounded Alford. When questioned, Alford refused to identify the shooter (who was likely a young Vice Lord), saying only “We’ll take care of it ourselves.” In October, 1969, a Vice Lord allegedly kidnapped two women off the street and raped them repeatedly inside the African Lion.

At the same time, 1969 saw Mayor Richard J. Daley and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan declared a “war on gangs.” Gang members would always claim that Daley feared the Lords and the concentration of black political power they were developing. In any case, November, 1969, saw the arrest for murder of Bobby Gore, who had served as the primary spokesperson for the gang, and later took on most of the role of CVL president, after Alfonso Alford suffered health problems in early 1969. Gore eventually ended up serving 11 years in prison.

At the same time as the leadership of CVL was facing trouble with the law, the gusher of money from the government and philanthropic organizations petered out. This was partially linked to the group’s legal troubles. At Gore’s indictment, State’s Attorney Hanrahan told reporters “We think these brutal acts should cause foundations and others to intensify their scrutiny of persons seeking money from them to make certain their funds are not used to arm street gangsters or for other idleness.”

Another reason for reduced funding levels after 1969 was a major scandal involving the misuse of government grant money by another Chicago street gang, the Black P. Stones, which eventually led to Stones leader Jeff Fort’s imprisonment. While there is no evidence that CVL was similarly misappropriating funds, the notion of philanthropic organizations working with street gangs was irreversibly tarnished. At the same time, the radical political atmosphere of the late 1960s was changing, and movements that presented a serious threat of revolution and anarchy in 1967 and 1968 were on the decline; it was their power that had inspired in many philanthropic organizations attempts to use such unconventional means as investing in street gang businesses. The foundations that had once competed over who could give the most money to CVL now moved on to new and more fashionable pursuits, such as environmental causes and nuclear non-proliferation.

Finally, 1969 also saw the departure of the gang’s grant-writer, David Dawley, who returned home to Massachusetts that year.

With their leadership gutted by retirement and prison, violent intra-gang battles over succession and reduced operating income from the government and philanthropists, the gang’s once-proud set of businesses on 16th street slowly closed during 1970 and 1971. During the 1970s, the Vice Lords returned to their past as a notoriously violent street gang. Their position of dominance on the streets of Lawndale positioned them perfectly for the rise of cocaine and crack, and the Lords controlled drug supply and retailing operations throughout the west side, as they do up to the present day.

Between 1975 and 1985, the population of North Lawndale dropped by 30,000 and the share of residents receiving welfare rose by 45% as manufacturing and retail jobs left the community. To today’s Chicagoan, the idea that Sears and Carson Pirie Scott once had retail locations in Lawndale seems absurd.

The buildings that once housed the African Lion, the House of Lords, and Teen Town have long since either turned into vacant lots or reverted to the dilapidated, mostly abandoned state they were in before CVL, Inc. operated them.