This story appeared as part of a series I coordinated commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Check out the entire series here, and read more about the clean-up efforts in my story on Rebuild L.A. here.
Scanning the anxious faces of some 2,000 South Central Los Angeles residents packed inside his sanctuary, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church knew he had a difficult task before him.
It was April 29, 1992. Earlier that day, a county clerk inside a Simi Valley courthouse some 50 miles away had read the verdict in the case against officers from the Los Angeles Police Department accused of using excessive force on Rodney King in a 1991 confrontation. All four had been acquitted, and the people’s outrage had begun to boil over.
“We had planned on the day of the verdict that we’d all meet here at First A.M.E. Church,” Murray says, draping one arm over a pew. He retells the story smoothly, remembering that day with clarity.
It was with a sense of dread that he and 10 or so other religious leaders from around the community had been meeting with Mayor Tom Bradley to prepare. “We didn’t want any explosions in case the verdict was negative,” he says.
But it would quickly become clear their efforts were in vain.
Today, Murray holds the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics at USC’s School of Religion, and is a senior fellow at the university’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Though he’s moved on, retiring from his post at FAME in 2004, the trauma of the riots 20 years ago has stuck with him.
“We said, ‘Let us handle it so it won’t get out of control.’”
As he talks, Murray seems to still see the masses that had poured into his church that night, filling the seats he and I now occupy. Members stood shoulder to shoulder, pressed against the back of the sanctuary. They crowded outside at the intersection of La Salle Avenue and South Harvard Boulevard, straining to hear pleas for nonviolence coming through speakers installed on the roof of the church.
“The mayor had just finished addressing the crowd when an usher came and got me, brought me out, said ‘I want you to see something.’ And he pointed to the horizon down south and there were fires—southeast, southwest. And in our neighborhood,” Murray says. “We knew then that our plans for deterring were too late.”
By the end of the night, more than 150 fires had been set around L.A. Gunfire echoed through the streets; looters ravaged small businesses, taking full advantage of the chaos. But Murray and his band of faith leaders did not lose hope. Instead, they moved toward the violence erupting just beyond FAME’s front doors.
“We took 100, 150 men and lined the streets adjacent to the church, next to where the Golden State Mutual Insurance Co. building was burning. And there were about 150 young men out there throwing stones at firemen… and a line of police, seven or eight of them, who insisted on attacking the young men throwing the stones.
“We said, ‘Let us handle it so it won’t get out of control.’ But they insisted, and formed a line and started stepping, moving towards the gangs. We ran and got in front of them and worked with the guys, went behind the houses where some of them were hiding. Pretty soon, [the police] went and left it.
“We stayed another three hours, ‘til about 1 o’clock that morning. Then we started going and bringing people who had been burned out into the church.” FAME volunteers cared for their neighbors displaced by the violence for three days until the Red Cross arrived.
As the smoke cleared, Murray along with the rest of L.A. surveyed the riots’ devastation, keenly aware of the raw anger still broiling beneath the city’s surface. “We knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy time ahead,” Murray says.
A church’s influence
It’s no accident FAME was the chosen venue for that ultimately unsuccessful peace rally.
The institution, Murray says, is a crucial component of African-American society in any city. “The church base is where black people have their greatest hope. If the faith-based community does not look out for the underserved community of blacks, browns and Asians,” he says, “then we have no justification for our existence, and the community will stay in muddy waters.”
Since moving from Seattle in October 1977, Murray managed to develop the South Central L.A. congregation from about 1,000—250 of whom actually showed up week after week—to welcoming that many new members each year. To this day, members are encouraged to join at least one task force to help out in the community. It’s the church’s message, “First to Serve,” that led FAME to its renowned position in Los Angeles by the mid-‘90s.
“We were oriented towards the society,” Murray says, glancing around the walls of the wood-beamed sanctuary. “Mayor Tom Bradley was a member of the church so obviously he would include us in any faith-based action to reaction.” As the tumult of the riots subsided, Murray says, “We stayed open for about six months, 24 hours a day, around the clock, trying to find a way to bring peace, harmony and restoration.”
The community he loved began to rebuild.
Mending a torn city
To placate the masses, officials turned much of their attention to holding the justice system and involved law enforcement agencies accountable. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates emerged as a clear villain for his handling of the crisis. Gates was unavailable the night the riots began, schmoozing at a fundraising event in Santa Monica. He took severe criticism for not only failing to recognize the potential threat of unrest, but also taking inadequate disciplinary action against the four officers who had beaten King. Under immense pressure from officials and the public alike, Gates retired from his post in June of that year.
Mayor Bradley appointed the Christopher Commission to assess the LAPD, including the department’s internal disciplinary system. The commission uncovered a disturbing pattern of officers using excessive force, and a severe lack of management or enforcement in addressing these cases. According to the commission’s report, just 42 out of more than 2,000 allegations of excessive force between 1986 and 1990 were sustained. The commission recommended a “new standard of accountability,” but most reforms were put on hold when Mayor Richard Riordan took office in 1993.
But Murray says the department had made great strides since then. “Our new band of police chiefs, the last three, four,” he says, “have really been people of conscience and conscientiousness. We need to say to the police of 21st century mentality, ‘Thank you.’ Because, there are good policemen, good cops. But when you give a racist person a stick, you give them power.”
“We would need to find a Rebuild L.A. that is in it for the long haul.”
Dealing with many of the remaining problems facing L.A., both then and now, would have required a systemic approach. And Murray says even the best-intentioned efforts fell short in the years after the riots.
“Rebuild L.A. was a fine concept,” Murray says of the initiative headed by philanthropist Bernard Kinsey. Rebuild Los Angeles attempted to spur economic development to help the city rise from the ashes of the riots. And in a little under two years, the group persuaded investors to pour $380 million into the community.
The program was a significant undertaking, but, “I think it did not last long enough so that it could go deep enough to solve the problems,” Murray says. “The problem has to do with jobs. The problem has to do with economics, with poverty. Addressing all of those things would take at least 30 years, a generation—not three years.”
After Kinsey stepped down as co-chair of the organization, Rebuild L.A. quickly faded, as did its potential to effect change. “They shut down and the South Central portion still has the empty lots, still has the underserved schools, still has the homeless population almost as large as the Skid Row population—if not larger.”
The issues are a symptom of a much deeper problem, Murray says. At the core of the socioeconomic disparities is a clear racial tension that courses through the city. With that in mind, Murray advises Angelenos not to pat themselves on the back when reflecting on how far the city has come. “There’s no ‘post-civil rights,’” he says. “We have made some progress coming out of the fires, coming out of the ashes of the civil unrest of 1992. But we still have a long way to go. We would need to find a Rebuild L.A. that is in it for the long haul.”
History repeats itself
Stark reminders of the long way to go that Murray speaks of have come lately in the rash of highly publicized violent crimes.
The killings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Kendrec McDade in Pasadena (the 19-year-old was shot March 24 while fleeing the scene of a robbery by police officers under the false impression he was carrying a gun) have again brought the justice system under scrutiny, forcing Americans to reconsider their perceptions of who poses a threat to a community.
Journalists and analysts have drawn comparisons to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson, but Murray looks further back—to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till more than half a century ago.
Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi when he unknowingly provoked the ire of a white man who believed Till had whistled at his wife. That summer night in 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, took Till from his uncle’s home and brutally murdered him. The tragedy rocked the nation, and remains firmly planted in the American consciousness.
“We’ve got to make it with nonviolence.”
“And you could say, ‘Ok, we’ve outgrown that. That was in 1955,’” Murray says. “But here, in 2012, we look at Trayvon Martin, and here we go with the racial profiling on the part of George Zimmerman, with the same police mentality of yesterday.”
The solution to responding appropriately in the cases of Martin and McDade, Murray says, is nothing new. “We’ve got to make it with nonviolence,” he says, grasping his hands. “We must adhere to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, who passed it on to Martin Luther King, to Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The assumption is: We have enough people of character. We have enough people of good faith. We have people of the modern century.”
Murray leans in. “We are under the mirror, and we are going to be watched closely,” he says. “If we don’t see ourselves in that mirror, then we will lose ourselves like every great nation.”
And in the wake of the most recent shootings, the country seems to be coming to terms with what’s at stake. Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote in his April 6 piece, “The Martin case… holds the potential to be a high point. There is nobility in the advocacy for truth and justice for a dead child who would still be alive if Zimmerman had not pursued him.”
Blow cautioned that “public pressure for a thorough investigation and fair dealings in this case needn’t and mustn’t be defined as a black issue. It’s a universally human issue.”
Murray says he’s optimistic that the nation is ready for a productive dialogue on race. “I think we are beginning to have it,” he says. “America will have to develop an inclusive philosophy. For the first time, the majority whites will be the minority. We have to prepare. And we have to have liberty, and justice, for all—or we have destruction for all.
“Our next step is to say, ‘Let’s fix it.’”
“Our question,” Murray says, “is the question of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island. Lady of Freedom asking us, her children in America, a nation of nations, ‘Aren’t you getting a little old for this?’”
And though the L.A. riots anniversary serves as an opportunity for reflection, Murray says it’s time to look beyond the past. Instead, he proposes we learn from those mistakes and move forward to make the crucial systemic changes.
“We know what’s right. We are not a dark people—we’ve been there before,” Murray says. “Now our next step is to say, ‘Let’s fix it.’ Ours is not a failure of know-how. Ours is a failure of will.”
The reverend says a crucial first step is cementing an inclusive philosophy would be acknowledging the black community as a significant resource. “Black America is a consumer economy,” he says. “It isn’t enough any longer for any Americans, particularly African Americans to say, ‘Give them a fish.’ It isn’t enough to say, ‘Teach them how to fish.’ Now it’s enough to say, ‘They must learn how to own the pond.’
“We are dreamers, Americans,” Murray says. “Everything depends upon the mentality. If America will adopt its dreamer mentality, then America will achieve everything we have wanted to achieve.”
Murray sighs throughout our conversation. These are things the pastor has talked about time and time again, in sermons and in passing, even before the night the L.A. riots began. These are questions that are still posed to him by members of the South Central community desperately seeking hope. Despite decades-long experience fighting for civil rights, answers to some of his own questions still escape him.
“L.A., where are you?” he asks the floor of the church where 20 years ago he tried to prevent disaster with a similar appeal. And after watching his community struggle to reemerge from the ashes, Murray still rests his faith on that dreamer mentality.
“The best way to make your dreams come true,” he says, “is to wake up.”
Listen to Rev. Murray remember the night he faced off with police in the streets outside of FAME Church, and offer his take on the chances for peace 20 years later.