Report to the Public

In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton defined Black Power as:

 

“…a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society.” [1]

 

In 1968, the members of the Conservative Vice Lords, Inc., a street gang turned non-profit on Chicago’s West Side, released A Report to the Public, a manifesto that mirrored militantly nationalistic language of Black Power:

 

“Like society itself, are in a time of change. Just as we used to fight each other on the street, we now stand together in a different fight for like—the life of a city, the life of a neighborhood and the life of a people who have been declared unemployable, uneducable, and unreached.”[2]

 

Report to the Public: the Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords, a multi-site “museum of the streets,” highlights the connection between the Black Power Movement and the formation of Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. The exhibition describes how the raise of the Black Power Movement inspired members of the CVL to shed their violent pasts and begin the Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. A partnership between the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) and former CVL members formed after Bobby Gore and Benneth Lee approached the JAHHM to collaborate on an exhibition of CVL history. Gore and Lee pursued the JAHHM partnership in part because of the validation a museum’s involvement offered. Although the JAHHM staff, led by Lisa Junkin Lopez, immediately understood the importance of the Conservative Vice Lords story, they treaded lightly at the beginning of the project. First, the exhibition fell beyond the interpretation of the museum, but allowed the museum to tell a story pertinent to Chicago’s current racial climate. Second, within the North Lawndale neighborhood where the CVL, Inc. focused their activism, community members had diverse attitudes about the CVL. Some people remembered CVL’s brief positive influence in North Lawndale, but many more remembered the bloody violence that characterized the CVL.

 

Report to the Public’s five exhibition panels are located on 16th Street and Lawndale Street on Chicago’s Far West side, a community whose current residents are overwhelmingly poor African Americans. In the late 1960s, the race and class consciousness offered by Black Power rhetoric spoke to the CVL’s members, many of whom did not benefit or identify with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and its veneration for integration and middle-class values. Although the CVL leadership looked to major foundations for financial support and consulting, they demanded throughout the life of the Conservative Vice Lord, Inc. that they remain in control of the organization. They recognized racial and class oppression as the cause of their suffering, though they did not reject capitalism as Carmichael and Hamilton called for in Black Power. Instead the Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. opened businesses in the empty storefronts: an ice cream parlor called Teen Town; an Afro-centric clothing story called the African Lion; a pool hall; and an artistic social hangout called Art & Soul. Like the museums described in From Storefronts to Monuments, these “free spaces” gave residents a place come together and express a cultural consciousness in public. [3] Art & Soul, a particularly interesting collaboration between the Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, provided open studio space for neighborhood artists and offered art classes to residents.

 

All of these entrepreneurial endeavors were economically successful, but the racist anti-gang policies that the Chicago city government employed in the late 1960s and the growing discontent of white people to the Black Power Movement led most of the funders to remove their support by the early 1970s. Only four years after the non-profit’s incorporation, the CVL, Inc. dissolved and the CVL returned to gang related activities.

 

The Black Power Movement and the Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. imagined a new reality far beyond mainstream top-down prescriptions to injustice. During a time when integration and non-violence were touted as the only path to racial equality, Black Power rhetoric and the CVL celebrated African American culture as distinct and worth valuing. For their involvement in the exhibit the JAHHM wished to reflect these ideals by allowing the CVL members to tell their own story with the hope that this radical idea spark creative solutions to Chicago’s current problems with gang violence.

 

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Note: I used CVL as an acronym for the Conservative Vice Lords street gang and CVL, Inc. as an acronym for the non-profit community organization they formed.

 

[1] Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 44.

[2] Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. A Report to the Public, 1968.

[3] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefronts to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 5.

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