The Young Lords: How a street gang turned to community activism

Though it began as a Puerto Rican street gang, the Young Lords Organization became a civil and human rights organization in September 1968 in Chicago. Headed by Jose "Cha-Cha" Jimenez, the Young Lords had a roller-coaster role in the turbulent politics of the 1960s and '70s, joining forces with groups like the Black Panthers. Afterward they descended into obscurity — rarely credited for the voice, however fleeting, they’d given to a Puerto Rican community silenced by poverty and isolation. (Chicago Tribune)
Ron Grossman – Chicago Tribune

At midnight on May 15, 1969, a group of about 20 people marched into the administration building of McCormick Theological Seminary, announced themselves as the Young Lords, and demanded $601,000 from the venerable Lincoln Park institution.

Most of the intruders were Puerto Rican and sported the berets that then marked radical activists. They ejected a few seminarians who were pulling all-nighters, chained the doors shut and hung a banner over them announcing that 800 W. Belden Ave. was now the address of the “Manuel Ramos Memorial Building.”

Ramos, a member of the Young Lords, had been shot and killed on May 4 that year by an off-duty cop during a controversial encounter.

When the press arrived at the Presbyterian seminary, the occupiers’ spokesman explained that they were, in effect, levying a fine because, as the Tribune reported, the school’s “program to rehabilitate the area is forcing low-income families out of the neighborhood.” In its report, the Tribune identified the Young Lords as “a street gang.”

That wasn’t exactly correct. Though it began as a gang, it had changed its name to the Young Lords Organization and claimed to be a born-again civil rights organization. But if the Tribune didn’t know what to make of the sit-in, neither did the school’s president. Dr. Arthur McKay pleaded the school’s liberal credentials, as the Tribune reported: “He said the seminary decided last year to invest 30 percent of its unrestricted endowment in the community.”

When that argument didn’t fly, a five-day stalemate ensued before a truce was struck: The Young Lords agreed to leave the building and the seminary agreed to negotiate with a “Poor People’s Coalition.”

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That agreement marked a historic divide — as McKay tried to explain at a meeting of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, where he took flak for backing off his resolve to have the Young Lords thrown out.

“It was not clear whether the coalition existed before they went into the building or after they came out, but if they can organize on the basis of common needs, it’s a welcome development for the Lincoln Park community,” McKay said, according to the Tribune.

The Young Lords exited the seminary hailed by some neighbors and decried by others. Lincoln Park was awash in the cross currents of social change. Then a partially blue-collar neighborhood down on its heels, its low rents attracted poor people, while its lakefront location and Victorian housing stock made it ripe for gentrification.

The Young Lords’ founder, Jose “Cha-Cha” Jimenez, was raised amid the resentments bred of such clashing interests. “Before I finished the eighth grade, I was moved nine times by these developers and forced to attend four different elementary schools,” he would recall in 1974 when he ran for alderman of the 46th Ward.

That race marked the high point of the Young Lords’ roller-coaster role in the turbulent politics of 1960s and ’70s. Afterward they descended into obscurity — rarely credited for the voice, however fleeting, they’d given to a community silenced by poverty and isolation.

For Jimenez, the route from street gang member to activist began behind bars. In and out of jail over the years, he was sentenced in 1968 to 60 days in Cook County Jail on drug charges. There he read books by Thomas Merton, a Catholic mystic, and Martin Luther King Jr., the apostle of nonviolence. Afterward, to fulfill a judge’s requirement, he enrolled in a make-up course for a high school diploma. The teacher took the class to see the anti-war demonstrators drawn to Chicago by the 1968 Democratic Convention, which both excited and confused Jimenez.

He could relate to young people taking on the cops, but why were they cheering for the communist leader of North Vietnam? Overhearing him, a woman said she was a communist, and invited him to a meeting of Chicago dissidents.

Shortly, Jimenez was imitating the Black Panthers’ confrontational tactics. On Jan. 23, 1969, the Tribune reported that the Young Lords began throwing chairs and yelling “Puerto Rican power” and “Down with urban renewal” at a meeting of the Lincoln Park Community Conservation Council, a group appointed by Mayor Richard J. Daley to supervise the neighborhood’s redevelopment.

Subsequently, the Young Lords sabotaged a meeting where officials were presenting plans for remodeling Waller High School, and they occupied the nearby Armitage Avenue Methodist Church.

Eventually renaming it the “People’s Church,” they immediately set up a day care center in the basement and later added a medical facility and a breakfast program for poor children.

They also established a “Peoples’ Park” on vacant land earmarked for development and organized tenants’ unions.

Those gambits brought Jimenez’s followers kudos from Puerto Ricans in other cities, and Young Lords chapters were established in Boston; New York; New Haven and Bridgeport, Conn.; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; and Puerto Rico. Closer to home, the reviews were mixed.

A Lincoln Park resident told a Tribune reporter: “All of this has so polarized the neighborhood that those who were moderate are now being pushed over toward the right, those who were the least bit liberal are being pushed over toward the radical side.”

That gap became a chasm after Sept. 29, 1969, when the pastor of the Armitage Avenue church and his wife were slain. The Rev. Bruce Johnson had supported the Young Lords’ commandeering of the church. And he’d roundly criticized Ald. George McCutcheon for blaming the Young Lords for a mysterious firebombing of his 43rd Ward office.

The police were baffled by the murders — and the case has never been solved. The Young Lords viewed it through the lens of Marxist ideology, saying the killings were testimony to the “lengths the ruling class will go to prevent the growth of our just struggle.”

Their opponents folded it into a Cold War narrative that equated dissent with disloyalty. The Tribune’s coverage fed that assumption.

In December 1969, the Tribune reported on a neighborhood group’s complaints about the Young Lords: “According to residents, the gang prints posters depicting an upraised fist with a gun in hand, expressing their revolutionary attitude.”

Columnist Robert Wiedrich archly noted that a Young Lords officer “took a jaunt to Havana,” and met with “North Vietnamese emissaries.”

In December 1970, the Tribune reported that the Lincoln Park Conservation Association’s director told the U.S. Senate’s internal security subcommittee that 26 neighborhood churches were naively supporting the Young Lords. Another witness testified that Lucy Montgomery, a wealthy supporter of liberal causes, paid Young Lords $100 an hour for being waiters at parties in her Old Town home.

The police trailed Jimenez incessantly. Arrested and indicted on multiple charges — ranging from mob action to resisting arrest — he went underground for 27 months before surfacing Dec. 6, 1972.

He surrendered to the cops and apologized to the Latino community “for taking $23 worth of lumber” from a construction site. He said he took it to fix building-code violations at the Armitage Avenue church.

He served a year in jail, then got almost 40 percent of the vote in his 1975 aldermanic run. But the Young Lords’ last hurrah was at hand. After helping Harold Washington win the Latino vote in the 1983 mayoral election, Jimenez exiled himself from Chicago.

Having long battled alcoholism, he sought treatment, became a certified addiction counselor and settled in Michigan — where he raises concerns about poor people being victimized by gentrification in Grand Rapids.

He plans to be back in Chicago for the 50th anniversary of the Young Lords Organization, which was founded on Sept. 23, 1968.

It will be celebrated at DePaul University, which inherited the site where the Young Lords burst out of anonymity by seizing the McCormick Seminary building. Jimenez chose Sept. 23 as the group’s birthday because it marks a 19th-century Puerto Rican uprising against its Spanish masters.

He notes that Puerto Rico is neither a state nor independent, but an “unincorporated territory” — and to Jimenez, that smacks of colonialism.

“I don’t call myself a ‘former Young Lord,’” Jimenez said by phone recently. “How could I? There are still battles to be fought.”

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