chicagomag | JAMES MONTGOMERY VIVIDLY RECALLS THE first time he met Jeff Fort. The year was 1971. Richard Nixon was in the White House and the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois was a young, ambitious Republican named James R. Thompson. The War on Poverty was over; the war on the Left was in full swing. Just two years earlier, Senator Charles Percy had praised Jeff Fort as a bright young man who should enter politics and had invited him to Nixon’s inauguration. (Fort sent two lieutenants in his place.) But by 1971, the party was over.
Montgomery would later serve as Mayor Harold Washington’s corporation counsel, but in 1971 he was a young lawyer in what he calls his “black rage” days, defending Black Panthers and civil rights leaders. One day, Montgomery recalls, he held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, lashing out at the white Establishment. Afterwards, he was approached by two young black men.
“Jim, you hate those motherfuckers as much as we do,"]eff Fort said. “Why don’t you represent us?”
Fort needed a good lawyer. The TWO job training program had turned into a scandal, and in March, Jim Thompson had indicted Fort and 23 Stones on conspiring to defraud the U.S. Government. Montgomery was intrigued by the government’s case. It read like a blueprint for a right-wing counterattack on the liberalism of the 1960s: Destroy one of the last vestiges of the War on Poverty and put away a young man who posed a threat to Mayor Daley’s tight rein on black Chicago—all in one neat, orderly showcase of a trial.
THE TWO PROGRAM WAS IN TROUBLE FROM the start. Mayor Daley, reportedly furious that the Feds had bypassed City Hall and funded TWO directly, refused to approve the organization’s choice of a director.
“Daley knew how gangs operated. He had been in one himself,” says Kenneth Addison, an associate professor of education at Northeastern Illinois University and an expert on Chicago gangs. “Fort had circumvented the Machine. Daley knew the threat Fort and his followers represented, so he stayed on their asses.”
Daley’s strategy was to harass the gangs at every turn and jail their leaders. The Gang Intelligence Unit staged repeated raids on TWO’s training centers. Fort was arrested for murder and kept in jail for five months, until March 1968, when the charges against him were dropped.
More important, in December 1967, the Chicago Tribune, acting on a police tip, charged TWO with mismanagement and the Blackstone Rangers with extortion. The stories scared off corporations that had pledged to hire the program’s trainees, its supporters say.
In the summer of 1968, Senator John McClellan (D-Arkansas) held dramatic hearings on the TWO program. When Fort was called as a witness, his attorney, Marshall Patner, advised him not to testify. Fort rose, clenched his fist, and stalked out of the room. He was cited for contempt of Congress, and later convicted.
Criminal charges seemed imminent. But in fact it took nearly four years and a Republican administration to indict anybody. And then the grand jury brought charges only against Blackstone Rangers. Some of the East Side Disciples became key witnesses for the prosecution.
NO ONE REALLY DISPUTED THE ALLEGATION that the Rangers had been pocketing government money. That was the point of the program, Montgomery argued. Gang bangers were being paid to stay off the streets and to stop killing one another, he said at the trial. How can you charge the gangs with extortion when the program intended all along to transfer money from the Feds to the gang? Assistant U.S. attorney Samuel K. Skinner, a protégé of Jim Thompson, argued otherwise. He produced evidence that gang members had falsified attendance sheets and turned over stipend l checks to their leaders. Little if any learning had taken place in TWO’s training centers, Skinner said. In fact, many gang members were placed in decent jobs, and many more would have i been helped if the city had not been so hellbent on discrediting TWO, says Anthony Gibbs who served as TWO’s acting director of the training program. (He is now an aide to Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer.)
“We knew what we were dealing with,” Gibbs says. “This was no Sunday-school class. The way to destroy the gang was to wean the members away from the gang. That was my philosophy. And the way to do that was to provide them with another alternative. Not say, ‘Be a nice little boy and go back to high school and get your GED.’ No, we’re gonna get you a J-O-B, ’cause this little training stipend I’m giving you, $45 a week, ain’t shit. I’m going to get you a job that makes you $150 a week and will buy you a new pair of shoes, sweater, everything. You’l1 get used to that, and you won’t have time for no gang.”
Others say the flood of grant money overwhelmed the gang.
“The money was coming so fast and so rapidly, the Rangers couldn’t sort out the good offers from the bad,” says Dan Swope, the former Boys Club director. “Ultimately, by not having that kind of guidance, they began to make their own choices, and they obviously made bad ones.
“People were fighting over them for grants. Jeff Fort and his group became ‘tough guys’ for hire. People made all kinds of offers, and they learned how to get everything they wanted. That’s what corrupted them, so much money being available. Everyone wanted to save the poor. Everyone had the perfect answer.”