Sargent Shriver, gangland financier

The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang, Natalie Y. Moore and Lance Williams (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011).

Some of the most eye-opening passages of this informative, worthwhile history of a notorious Chicago street gang come in the form of the context of the times in which the Blackstone Rangers formed. Specifically, during the optimistic early days of the Great Society, many of society’s good and great thought that a little indulgence and a steady stream of government grant money could reform these teenage hustlers into leaders of the black community.

This book is no slapdash true crime chiller; Moore is a journalist and Williams a college professor. They’re more interested in the social forces that shaped the Stones than in lurid details of the gang’s (quite astonishingly bloody) history. As a result, they provide a 1960s-vintage illustration of the old saw about the road to hell and good intentions.

Community grants channeled through a grassroots group called the Woodlawn Organization were designed, through job training and night schooling, to turn gangsters into citizens; no less a personage than Sargent Shriver, overseeing LBJ’s War on Poverty, is quoted saying at the time that the program was an excellent use of federal money. In addition to the Woodlawn Organization, the Stones relied on a white hipster Presbyterian pastor named John Fry as a patron. Fry, who’s still alive and is quoted extensively, let them turn his church into a sort of clubhouse, complete with boozy dances and weapons caches.

Alas, the Stones proved extremely resistant to the ministering of the caring society. The grant money was funneled off by a series of no-show jobs and worksheet forgeries, much of it going to buy guns for endless wars with rivals the Disciples. The spigot was turned off after some embarrassing congressional hearings in 1968, but it wasn’t the last brush with respectability for the Stones.

Groups ranging from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam to the Libyan government would all, over the next decade and a half, make the same mistake as John Fry and Sargent Shriver: mistaking a criminal organization for a nascent political force capable of mobilizing the downtrodden. The gang itself took some strange turns, eventually renaming itself El Rukns and functioning as a kind of religious cult for racketeers, but their bottom line commitment to vice has remained remarkably consistent.

This isn’t a perfect book; the writing is choppy, more like a first draft than a finished product. And some of the main players – like gang founder Eugene “Bull” Hairston – just drop out of the story altogether, with little explanation (Hairston founded a rival faction of the gang and was murdered in the 1980s). But overall, it’s a valuable addition to a serious library about crime, shedding light on the overlooked world of black Chicago gangs.

(V. Charm)

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