Friday, April 1, 2016

The Amazing Transformation of William “Sonny” Fletcher

By John M. Hagedorn

Outta all the stuff I been through, I been shot and everything, left for dead and all this, it’s time for me to give something back and I’m doing it and I feel good about it.

Redemption. From the streets to the prisons and back to the streets. But now he isn’t robbing people — he’s helping them.

Born in 1957, his family was one of the first black families to move to Lawndale in 1960.  They owned the “Thirteen Ten Club” on Kedzie. As he grew up he watched the Vice Lords as they transformed from a street gang into a group that helped the community. He explains how the Vice Lords worked back then:

William "Sonny" Fletcher
…say that they snatched somebody’s purse …if Mrs. Johnson came up on the corner and told one of the guys “I know who did it my purse got snatched” call the police?  We’ll go get him and we’ll come up with the purse and mostly all the belongings maybe a little money be gone ‘cause drugs wasn’t that bad back then and we would deal with ‘em, you know what I’m sayin?  We’ll rough him up, where they know not to do it no more…  I mean Vice Lords did a lot, they paid some peoples rent…  They had buildings where people could stay in…..if you needed help they would help.

But Mayor Daley and his cops came down hard on the Vice Lords, cutting off funds for their programs and jailing Bobby Gore and other leaders.

…here’s a group of Black guys that trying to get together on something positive and you wanna destroy it, instead of saying “hey they doing something pretty good over there lets go over and talk to these guys and see what they doing? 

Sonny joined the Renegade Vice Lords and became a terror on the streets. He went to prison for the first time at 17:

Altogether I was incarcerated nine times.  I was just looking at it the other day and it was about 29 years altogether off and on.

He was a bright kid who fell under the lure of dope but gained a reputation in the prisons as someone to talk to, who would help with the law and getting along in prison. Then when he was released in 1981 he met Bobby Gore who was working at the Safer Foundation. He said he was Bobby’s “first success story.” Bobby told him:

“what are you doing here?” (I said)  I just come home man- Im trying to do something.  So he said  “look- don’t bullshit me, you want a job, you got a high school diploma.”    I said yeah I been going to college in the joint.  He said  “I can get you a job today.”

Sonny got that job at a gas station and within a month he was the manager. Today he works at St. Leonard’s, counseling younger men released from prison, leading them on a path away from crime. He has some strong, but simple advice:

But the young guys, they see me.  I’m talking ‘bout, they used to call me Mr. Buzzard.  I was a rough cat, anything goes.  Now I’m a substance abuse counselor.  When they say to me “Man, you don’t even come around no more, you don’t do this.”  I say “I come around.  When now when I come around.. you’ll say “what a transformation. No more robbing, no more dope.”  They ask me for money, but I’m not giving you any money to go out and kill yourself, I’m sorry.  “But you used to.”  I say “yes, think what you’re saying, I used to do a lot of things, I don’t do that anymore.”  And I try to explain to ‘em that doing what they doin’ now is easy.  Doing the right thing is hard.

You can still find William Fletcher at 16th & Lawndale. But now he isn’t robbing people but collecting food donations and sponsoring free meals. He’s organizing programs for summer jobs.  His plans include a social center in an abandoned building in the center of the “Holy City.”  He has found redemption in serving his community.   He’s doing the right thing and it ain’t hard no more.

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