History

Black Power Republicans and Blackstone Rangers

A forgotten byway of Chicago politics

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A postscript to my earlier item about John McClaughry and the Republicans of the 1960s: I wasn't kidding when I said the "moderate" wing of the GOP contained multitudes. Check out this passage from Geoffrey Kabaservice's fascinating 2012 book Rule and Ruin, which comes after Kabaservice describes McClaughry and his then-boss, Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, forging an alliance with David R. Reed, a Chicago civil rights activist who led a group called the New Breed Committee. Reed, who ran for Congress as a Republican, supported local control of schools, opposed centralized public housing plans, and wanted to replace traditional welfare programs with something similar to Milton Friedman's negative income tax (in part because the Chicago Democratic machine "used threats of welfare cutoffs to keep the poor in line"). He also put Percy's office in touch with some folks who wouldn't usually turn up in a Republican rolodex:

Young Republicans

he introduced McClaughry and other Percy assistants to the 3,000-member Blackstone Rangers, Chicago's most powerful and feared black street gang. Reed's work with young people brought him into contact with some of the Rangers. Members of the New Breed approached the gang to try to get them not to harm Reed's workers in the district, particularly white volunteers and people on loan from the Pecy campaign. Some members of the New Breed believed that the Rangers could provide access to voters in the housing projects, while others hoped to channel the gang's energies away from violence and into political activism. Reed became a liason between the gang and the Republicans working for his campaign, which led to meetings with the gang's charismatic kingpin, Jeff Fort, and late-night basketball games with gang members. For a while, McClaughry was optimistic about a possible Republican-Ranger entente. "There is no doubt in my mind at all that Jeff [Fort] could go to City Council or even further, with his ability and magnetic leadership," he wrote to Reed. "If the Rangers get the message, there could really be a revolution within people, as well as within the district." McClaughry later recalled that "The Blackstone Rangers were at war with City Hall and the Democratic power structure, and so were the Republicans, so there was some interest in this group. The Republicans put out a tentative feelers, because if these people actually voted, or if they intimidated whole neighborhoods into voting, they could be a powerful voting bloc. But this was risky business, since the Rangers were criminals."

File that idea under Paths Not Taken: "In the end, the Republicans decided the risks of working with the Rangers outweighed the benefits." But the gang didn't leave politics behind: They soon got some grant money from LBJ's Office of Economic Opportunity. Fort eventually found a new patron, name of Muammar Qaddafi.