CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Amidst all the football and family fun at Freedom Park on Labor Day, there was a reunion of a very different variety.
Eight black men -- all between 50 and 60 -- sat in Shelter #2, laughing, grilling, and playing chess. Watching them, it was clear they were old friends. Not so clear was that they were all once bank robbers in Charlotte in the 1970s.
Their crew truly formed in federal prison after all of them had been arrested and convicted. Before their arrests, they say they had worked in teams in a spree of bank robberies that lasted until the FBI brought in a special task force to stop the crimes.
We knew we were going to federal prison, so we made a vow that we would stick together, Suleiman Ali remembered Monday. The pact never broke. To this day, it s still strong. When one gets married we show up to their wedding. When someone dies, we re there.
Nowadays, they use mostly nicknames -- Spec, Flint, Ali, R.L. and the Godfather -- but their names and crimes are clearly laid out in federal paperwork. George Christopher Bailey, Robert Lee Morrow, James Henry Brown, and Larry Eugene Wallace, for example, were all convicted of the July 1973 robbery of a North Carolina National Bank that ended with a shootout with police.
They spent anywhere fromthree to 14 years in prison for those robberies. Some ended up in prison after those sentences. Many also ended up addicted to drugs. But now -- with the exception of several men who've died -- all of the original crew is out of prison and going straight.
'This is the first time since 1972, 1973 that we've all been out, Ali explained.
They first decided to get together just because, but as their plans evolved, they realized their lifelong friendships could do good.
We can do something with this that we have. Let's show the public -- just because we used to be [something] is not the way we are now. That was yesterday. Let's do today. Let's make tomorrow better, Charles David Harris ( The Godfather ) said.
Harris, Ali and their friends are now starting what they call the Giant Steps Foundation with a goal of mentoring and speaking with young people. They've also developed an idea for the GirlSmart program to work with at-risk young, black teenagers.
The organization is just beginning, reaching out for non-profit status and to make partnerships with police and schools in the area. Their goal is to to take the friendships they've made and the lessons they learned and turn them into something good.
You got people -- lawyers and doctors -- who can tell people what to do. We want to tell them what not to do. And no one can offer that advice except someone who has done it and made the mistake, Ali said.