Book ties Philly's violent mob past to modern-day corruption probe

September 06, 2005

Abington, Pa. -- In a new book, "Black Brothers Inc.," Penn State Abington researcher Sean Patrick Griffin offers a thoroughly detailed account of the rise and fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia -- a group of drug-dealers, numbers-runners, extortionists and thugs who would give the city's Cosa Nostra all it could handle during its heyday from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Though largely dormant for two decades, the Black Mafia's power and impact still are felt to this day. Shamsud-din Ali -- known better in his Black Mafia days as Clarence Fowler -- has seen to that. Ali -- a prominent Philadelphian and Muslim cleric who was convicted in June of racketeering and fraud for his role in misappropriating minority-certified business contracts from the city -- served six years in prison for his alleged role in a Black Mafia slaying during the early 1970s, though his conviction was later overturned.

The recent arrest of Ali, a longtime friend and political associate of Mayor John F. Street, was one of the key busts in a very high-profile FBI investigation in 2003 that included the electronic bugging of the mayor's office. As described in "Black Brothers Inc.," Ali honed his "power broker" skills while serving as a leader of inmates during his earlier incarceration in Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison.

Griffin, associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington and a former Philadelphia police officer, said the Black Mafia's early history, which included their graduation from routine street crimes to schemes to defraud the government of money earmarked to make communities safer, was in large part a reflection of the times in inner cities. "At the time, it was commonplace for numbers-runners and other gangsters to be financiers for legitimate black businesses, because many of these businessmen couldn't get loans from banks," he said. "Many people across the country are interested in the book because whether they lived in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philly, Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, they can recall similar sorts of structures in these urban centers."

What made the Black Mafia noteworthy, however, was the social system within which it flourished, said Griffin. Whereas most gangs of the day were loosely defined groups that typically flew beneath the radar, the Black Mafia in Philly was well organized, had ties to prominent politicians and to the Nation of Islam (NOI) -- for which the Black Mafia served as an extortion arm -- and did much of its carnage in very public places.

"There were many connections between labor leaders, politicians, financiers and the Black Mafia because of the one commonality that exists among all four groups -- they're dealmakers" said Griffin. Philadelphia's NOI Temple 12 was headed by Jeremiah Shabazz, called by some the "Godfather of the Black Mafia." According to the book, Shabazz's most famous convert, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, was close friends with one of the syndicate's most flamboyant associates, con artist and drug financier Major Coxson. Ali's ties to the Black Mafia confused the public and authorities.

Although some of the Black Mafia were not members of the Nation of Islam, the book says that the organized crime group kicked back a portion of their bounty to the Black Muslim organization. In addition to extorting drug-dealers and numbers-runners, the Black Mafia often targeted legitimate businesses and churches -- on at least one occasion killing a very popular pastor after breaking into his home in a robbery attempt. They often committed outrageous crimes in broad daylight in an attempt to enhance their "street cred" and to scare off witnesses. For the most part it worked, and when it didn't, the organization didn't hesitate to silence potential witnesses by brute force.

The book notes that many of Philadelphia's most notorious crimes can be attributed to the work of the Black Mafia, including the 1971 Dubrow's Furniture store robbery, during which the criminals conducted a holdup in the middle of the afternoon, shot, beat and tied up several store employees, and tried to torch the building so as to leave no witnesses.

The group's handiwork went well beyond the borders of the city as they dominated certain rackets along the Eastern seaboard and their exploits extended all the way to California, said Griffin. In fact, when the leader of a rival Muslim sect criticized the NOI, Black Mafia members broke into his Washington, D.C., home and killed seven of his family members, including a nine-day old infant, even though he was not at home. The leader of the Hanafi Muslims, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, had been given the house by his most famous convert, basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"Black Brothers Inc.," titled after the syndicate's bogus community development group, is the follow-up to Griffin's first book on organized crime, "Philadelphia's Black Mafia." Published by Milo Books in the United Kingdom, the new book is a paperback written for popular audiences. "This is public scholarship in the truest sense," Griffin said.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017