Over six days in late April and early May 1992, hundreds of fires burned in the heart of Los Angeles. The acquittal of police officers charged with using excessive force against Rodney King had sparked the L.A. Riots or L.A. Uprising, one of the most destructive episodes of urban violence in U.S. history. The unrest left 55 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.
On Sunday, May 3, 1992, the Rev. Cecil Murray addressed his congregation from the pulpit of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME). As the fires burned, the church had opened its doors to the community, media and officials, providing services and mediating between various stakeholders.
Rev. Murray’s sermon in the midst of the civil unrest combines a brilliant critique of the structural inequalities that spawned the violence with a humor-inflected balm for those in need of comfort and reassurance.
During his 27 years as the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray transformed a small congregation into a megachurch that brought jobs, housing and corporate investment into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, FAME Renaissance, the economic development arm of the church, brought more than $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. Rev. Murray remains a vibrant force in the Los Angeles faith community through his leadership of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
The Murray Archive preserves Rev. Murray’s sermons and interviews in order to inspire the next generation of pastors, activists and scholars.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of the above sermon. To quote from the sermon, please provide credit to: Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Murray Archives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“Making You an Offer You Can’t Refuse”
May 3, 1992
Jesus, why did you come to Los Angeles? “I have come that you might have life.” John 10:10. But, Jesus, we already have life. Jesus, we got day life, night life, morning life, afternoon life. We already have life. “Yes, I see. You people are very lively! As a matter of fact, you might say you are incendiary.”
I spent a few hours in the Simi Valley. Oh, you have life, and I was down the Parker Center. You have life alright, but I have come that you might have a different kind of life.
Our subject is going to be making you an offer you can’t refuse. The good shepherd always sentences you to life. The bad shepherd always sentences you to death. The good sheep always know the difference. The good shepherd is the one with integrity. The good shepherd is the one who is genuine. What’s our street language? Straight up! Jesus says to each and every one of you this morning, “Baby, I’m for real! If I tell you, I love you. If I tell you the truth, the truth will set you free. If I tell you that you are equal in the sight of God, red or yellow, black or white, all are precious in His sight–I want you to believe that. Baby, I’m for real.”
Some here think that Coke is the real thing, both kinds of Coke. That’s because you haven’t met Jesus yet. “Everyone who thirsts, come under me and drink.” Everyone. You don’t need money; Jesus paid it all. If you’re thirsty for righteousness, come unto me and drink. You’re thirsty for dignity, come unto me and drink. Jesus is the real thing.
The bad sheep… shepherd comes always to take life. The bad shepherd comes always dressed as the good shepherd, filled with words of love. The sheriff who sentenced us, and really that person’s not a judge… Down home, we used to call him the high sheriff. The high sheriff was a symbol of terror. The high sheriff gave us a change of venue. The judge gave us a change of venue that took us away from a valley of possibility out into the Simi Valley of death. I know if I get him out there, they’ll do the right thing. I love you. The bad shepherd loves all of the sheep, except for Black sheep.
The four great heroes of the West who have been through training that said everyone is to be treated with dignity. You are to love everyone within the environs of greater Los Angeles, and you have a club on your side and a gun on your side and the National Guard at your back and the Army, Navy and Marines waiting to come to your rescue. You don’t have to be a bully force, and yet they crucified little Rodney.
I feared for my life, surrounded by 20 armed police persons. Poor little Rodney, prostrate, couldn’t even help himself if they wanted to, but they love all the citizens. They love all the sheep, except for Black sheep. The jury charged to lift up, to lift up the dignity of the law, the law of our land, given to us by the law of God, the law that’s so sacred when it has taken our vilified. We cannot live in peace with each other. We cannot live in fairness and equity with each other. Those 12 good people and true going to chamber and they sit day after day after day after day. They come out and they say, “We good 12 people and true love all of the sheep. We find these four sheep not guilty. We love all of the sheep, except the Black sheep.”
The bad shepherd who wears the badge, the bad shepherd who says it’s an operation, the bad shepherd who gives a blanket of approval, “I want you to go out to the streets, and I want you to love all of the sheep.” Then, he winks in his gateway cell and says, “Except the Black sheep.”
Then the sheep get together, the white sheep get together. She’s just hearing the truth. The white sheep get together over here, because the bad sheep doesn’t like a color mix. Then, the bad shepherd puts the Black sheep over here. The Black sheep look at the white sheep and say, “Lord, what’s going on? They outnumber us 12 to 1. I sure hope they’ve got fair minds!” The white sheep put their heads together. “What we gonna do about them Black sheep?” Fifty percent of the them say, “Treat them fairly,” and 50 percent of them say, “Treat them poorly.”
Are we some aberration? No, here’s a poll conducted by a radio station represented here today. They polled 3,300 people about the outcome of the Rodney King verdict. They just split almost down the middle. Fifty percent said, “We think it’s a bad verdict. We think they brought in an inequity of justice. It was a bad verdict,” and 50 percent almost said, “We think it’s a good verdict. They have done nothing wrong.” What we have is a good verdict from a good judge sending it out in a change of venue, a good verdict coming down from a good jury. This good verdict that’s good for nothing except creating chaos, leading us against each other, causing us to hate one another! Good for nothing. Good for nothing.
Jesus, let me show what goodness is. Jesus, I hope you can count way up into the thousands, because I’m gonna count every spire or smoke plume that’s going up into the sky. Jesus, I hope you can look at the alienation of Black against white against Korean. Every man’s hand is set against every other man. Every woman’s hand is set against every other woman’s hand, because of this good verdict. Some shepherds create chaos, and some sheep capitalize on chaos.
It’s bad enough when the bad shepherd mistreats the Black sheep. It’s even worse when the Black sheep mistreat each other.
Now, Black sheep, you didn’t start all of those fires. Every four minutes a fire? My goodness, fires don’t move on CPT. Our precious non-Black brothers and sisters: CPT stands for “colored people time.”
Little Black sheep didn’t start all of those fires, but the first news reports the northern boundary was Florence Avenue. Then, we come up to Slauson Avenue. Then, we’re at Vernon Avenue. Then, we’re at Wilshire Avenue. Then, we’re at Melrose Avenue. Then, we’re at Sunset Boulevard.
We don’t live up there. We work up there. We didn’t set all of those fires.
When the record is clear, maybe it will show we didn’t set most of those fires. But, we do have to confess, we set some of those fires, to our shame. Because now mother’s crying in the ghetto because Boys Market had built stores in the ghetto. Boys Market came in along with a few other markets when nobody would return after the 1965 riots.
Fifteen of the stores burned down, can never open up again, because they’ll have to build new. Yesterday, three representatives of Boys Market came. We sat together in the office, and we talked together in the office, and we had prayer together in the office. I felt their pain. How could you treat us in the same category with your enemies? How could you treat your friends and your enemies alike? I had to say, “We understand.” Ted Watkins of Watts Labor Action Committee in South Central has served Black folks for a generation, they burned his office down. Golden Bird Chicken is Black Bird Chicken. They burned his office down.
The truth of the matter, we have no excuse for going around setting fires, for now we have no place where mothers can buy milk for their children. It is in our communities that we have no means. Somebody’s gonna have to get a transfer and another transfer and go way up to another section of down, leaving our wealth in that section of town and coming back with nothing but a bag full of nothingness. We are not proud that we set those fires, but we’d like to make a distinction to America this morning. The difference between setting a fire and starting a fire.
We set some of those fire, but we didn’t start any of those fires. Those fires were started when some men of influence decided that this nation can indeed exist half slave and half free. Those fires were started when some men poured gasoline on the Constitution of the United States of America. Those fires were started when somebody decided that the very pioneers who started this city should not have freedom and justice under the law. Those fires were started when somebody poured gasoline on the criminal code and the civil court, when somebody took word and truth and poured gasoline on them and burned the whole structure down.
But, it is not to our credit that in the flicker of those fires, we were found looting and robbing and pillaging and stealing. For that is not us, dear hearts. We are noble people. I know a mother can say, “I was stealing mil for my baby.” I understand, baby. I understand, but why didn’t you come to the church?Another… I understand what you were doing, but I cannot condone it. Baa, baa, Black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full. Ham for my belly, booze for my brains, television for my entertainment just in case it rains. Oh, Black sheep!
Black sheep, you must have wool on your head, and you are learning that that wool is good wool because God made it. But, God put the wool on your head, not in your head. You have to use your head. You want to be able to say, “I’ll go hungry before I’ll go humiliated.” Your folks said, “Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my God and be free.”
Choose hunger over humiliation. You ask why the little Black sheep jumping on each other. Why? Oh, when I was a younger man, they made a home brew called Sneaky Pete. A lot of things go down smooth. Sneaky Pete went down as smooth as Dionne Warwick and Al Green.
But once Sneaky Pete went into action, Sneaky Pete would blow the top of your head off. Sneaky Pete, 150 of the men of the church standing on Western and Adams at 3:00 in the morning, having been there for three hours. Standing between 50 police persons who want to do that staccato step, to do that Kent State thing all over again. You could look in some of their eyes. You see, “I ain’t whipped… I ain’t whipped a Black sheep in a long, long time.” Not all of them, but it only takes one idiot to make an idiocrasy. On the other end, 150 young Black men throwing rocks and stones and bottles from the alcohol they had consumed, provoking these people to move forward. The men of the church said, “No, no, no, no, don’t throw that,” and formed a line presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice.
What was egging those rock throwers on? Sneaky Pete, a little Black sheep with a wooly mind hollering out, “Throw the stone! Throw the stone! Throw the stone!” What does he have in his hand? Absolutely nothing. Where was he located? Way in the back, so that when the head-whipping starts, he’ll start. Sneaky Pete. Why would anybody follow Sneaky Pete? Whether he’s Western-Adams Sneaky Pete or Parker Center Sneaky Pete, why would anybody follow Sneaky Pete? Why would anybody endure an embarrassment to the City of the Angels? One of the most sophisticated cities in the world having a little white sheep with a wooly mind talking for everybody. Why would we endure Sneaky Pete?
Go to Israel and watch. The shepherd has the sheep drinking and eating. Then, the shepherd calls out, “Ahh, wee,” and the sheep get up, and they follow their shepherd. He knows their name. “Come on, Bill. Come on, Bloods. Come on, Crips. Come on, preachers. Come on, everybody.” Knows their name. They follow him. Someone asked the guy, “Sir, will the sheep always follow the shepherd?” “Oh, yes, except the sick sheep. They’ll follow anybody.”
Well, I’m coming home now. I just want to tell you about our friend who says, “I’m for real.” He says, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me. My good sheep follow me. My sick sheep with follow anybody. My good sheep …”
Let me tell you this morning, because we gotta clean up the town. We gotta clean up the air. We gotta clean up the air. As you clean up, smoke gets in your eyes. Don’t you worry about that. Weep a little bit and keep on walking. Smoke gets in your eyes. Blink a little bit, because you cannot see through teardrops. You cannot see through the occlusion of hatred and anger and violence, and you lump all white folks together. You lump all Korean folks together. You lump all Black folks together. Weep a little bit, but keep on walking.
When the smoke gets too thick for you, sit down by the side of the road and have a little talk with Jesus. Tell Him all about your troubles. Then remember, “Jesus, You brought me all the way. You’re such a wonderful Savior. I’ve never known you to fail me. Jesus, You brought me all the way.” Then, you get up and you keep on walking, walking up the King’s Highway. When you know anything, there’s a warm hand in your hand.
There is your friend who brought you out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is a friend who fed you when you couldn’t feed yourself. There is your friend who educated you when you couldn’t educate yourself. There is your friend who defended you when you couldn’t afford an attorney. There is your friend who helped you build a house when the bank reclaimed your house. There is your friend. There is your friend. Walk on with Him. Walk on by faith. The smoke is passing over. Walk on by faith, and you’ll never walk alone, in the name of Jesus!