USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni interviewed Rev. Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray for the Huffington Post.
During the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, Murray became a household name as the city’s most visible and effective peacemaker. As the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Murray spearheaded FAME’s efforts to end the theft and arson, and his parishioners served as human shields to protect others from violence. In the aftermath of the civil unrest, Murray inspired and mobilized politicians, religious leaders, entrepreneurs and policy experts to work together in order to redevelop and reinvigorate South Los Angeles.
Rev. Murray currently holds the John Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics at the University of Southern California, where he is also the chairman of the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement and a senior fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. His dynamic role in ending the civil unrest is chronicled in his new autobiography Twice Tested by Fire: A Memoir of Faith and Service.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, and I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rev. Murray to discuss the impact and legacy of the riots for South Los Angeles, the black church, and race and justice in the United States.
FAME is located near the epicenter of the LA Riots and played a pivotal role as first responders to the arson and violence. What was the climate like in South Los Angeles leading up to the verdict in the Rodney King case, and what happened in FAME’s neighborhood immediately after the verdict?
We met with Mayor Tom Bradley before the court issued its verdict, and we agreed that when the verdict was announced, we would assemble at FAME and our main task would be to keep order in the community. We understood that it was an explosive situation and under no circumstances did we want violence. The day of the verdict, after Mayor Bradley finished speaking to the crowd at FAME, we went outside and we could see the fires that were starting just south of us. I remember that the Golden State Life Insurance building, a black-owned insurance company on Adams and Western, was on fire.
We called the neighborhood fire department to help. The said they would come but they would need protection because people on the street were throwing rocks at them. We told them that we would protect them. We had 150 men come out from FAME to form a line between the gangs and the firefighters as they put out fires in our neighborhood. We then gathered about 125 people from our neighborhood who had been burned out of their buildings, and brought them into FAME for protection. Four days later, the Red Cross came to give them shelter. This all happened on the first day of the riots.
During the civil unrest, you were in contact with President George Bush, Governor Pete Wilson and Mayor Tom Bradley. Why did they reach out to you and what advice did you give them?
FAME had been walking the streets for eight years before the civil unrest. Mayor Bradley walked with us in South Los Angeles several times, and Mayor Villaraigosa has also walked with us through Skid Row. At FAME, we were blessed to have four sitting American presidents come talk with us and spend time with us. So politicians knew that they could access our community through our church.
Our whole purpose was to reach beyond the walls. We had 65 programs in the community that provided housing, mental health support, substance abuse counseling, food distribution, prison ministry, and HIV/AIDS care. As a megachurch, we had a mega-responsibility to reach out the larger community.
In terms of advice, we have to start with the question of Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?” Our human history shows that a dream deferred explodes. We have to find a way to keep that explosion contained and work nonviolently. We are at a point now where violence can literally destroy the planet. We have no other option but non-violence.
After the LA Riots, FAME established the Renaissance Center under your leadership. FAME Renaissance worked closely with churches, non-profit organizations, private businesses, and governmental entities in order to create economic opportunities in South Los Angeles. How were you able to bring together such a unique group of religious and secular organizations for a common cause, and what were your hopes and aspirations for FAME Renaissance?
It starts with the dreamer and the church was the dreamer. We had to believe that if you reach out beyond yourself, God will open doors for you. To this moment, I would give my life believing that. If you are sincere, earnest, honest and care deeply, doors will be opened for you.
One example is Michael Eisner, who let us speak to Disney employees about the need for job creation in South Los Angeles. Two weeks later, we received a check from Disney for $1 million, and that got us started. Ron Burkle from Food 4 Less helped us feed more than 3,000 people at our monthly community event. Pacific Bell installed 20 landlines in the church so we could be in communication with other service agencies and community organizations. Mattel gave us toys that we would distribute to neighborhood children for Christmas. College students from all over the West Coast would come and volunteer for a week with us.
For the economic development component of FAME Renassiance, we focused on job growth, training and mentorship. We took young people from gangs and helped them become entrepreneurs. And eventually, we raised over $400 million to empower South Los Angeles communities.
As pastor, you grew FAME from a congregation of 200 people to 20,000 people, and you pioneered innovative community engagement initiatives that transformed South Los Angeles. How have black churches changed since the LA Riots, and what are the challenges and opportunities for black churches today?
From the time that we all met as slaves 400 years ago, down by the river in America, the spirit of the black church has been social activism and the social gospel. The one place that black people always gathered was the black church. Even the NAACP, SNCC, CORE and the Urban League had to come to the black church to access the black community.
Is the black church dead? That’s the question I keep hearing through the grapevine. The black church is lacking in its male attendance, and it’s lacking in its community concern. The prosperity gospel has started to overtake the social gospel, and churches now preach that God wants you to be rich. And the leaders of these churches, to a large extent, are self-centered and compete for the biggest car, biggest house, biggest salary and biggest ego. Where then do we find the voice of the disenfranchised, disempowered and the disinherited? I think the black church must reinvent itself, just as religion has to reinvent itself.
Twenty years ago, the Rodney King case exposed the institutionalized dimensions of racial profiling and police brutality, and challenged us to wrestle deeply with issues of civil rights, equal protection, and substantive justice. Twenty years later, our nation is struggling in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. What does this say about racial equality and criminal justice in the U.S.?
We have not yet solved our problems with racial profiling and police brutality. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman. Two nights later, he was shot, beaten, brutalized and drowned. In 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain, a 68-year-old former Marine and prison guard was at home when his health monitor alert device accidentally went off. The police came to his house, kicked in his door and shot him. And now the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a classic case of racial profiling by someone who was not even a police officer.
Look at Mother Liberty — she has turned her back to the sea. Facing her children, who all share her DNA, she asks the question that all good mothers ask of recalcitrant children: “Aren’t you getting a little old for this?” And after 400 years, we have to finally say yes.
You preach a prophetic message of compassion and justice. But throughout your life, you’ve been confronted and denigrated by critics and detractors. Your family was threatened and attacked, you received a lot of hate mail, and your church was targeted by neo-Nazi and skinhead groups. How do you transform hatred into love without losing hope?
To love “because of” is fine but you must also love “in spite of.” The dialectic of God is how God takes what is working against you and makes it work for you. If I am a servant of God, that dialectic must work for me. So after the skinheads failed in their attempt to shoot me, I met with them at the Museum of Tolerance. There we talked, there we embraced and there we wept. Obviously, they did wrong and obviously there has to be punishment for doing wrong. But in our hearts, we are fellow human beings, and under the skin, all people are kin. You don’t return hate for hate. Love is not punkish. Love has strength too. But love is willing to take the blow rather than returning the blow.