USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

The Black Church Next

Faith-based Social Engagement in 20th Century Los Angeles: A Historic Overview

Building a Community

Like many of its urban counterparts, the city of Los Angeles was impacted greatly by the movement of African Americans out of the South during the middle of the 20th century. Motivated by the economic and social promise of World War II and the West, the city’s Black population grew from 63,744 in 1940 to 503,606 by 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau). Hailing primarily from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, these migrants created a model of social and religious engagement that was birthed in the Jim Crow South and reached maturity under the bright lights of Hollywood.3

Along with traditional congregations like First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME), Second Baptist, and Emmanuel Church of God in Christ, during this period of growth the burgeoning mass of Black Angelenos spawned a new set of faith communities and religious leaders that spoke to the hopes and aspirations of their congregants. Including Praises of Zion Baptist, Holman United Methodist, St. Brigid Catholic Church, Victory Baptist, Faithful Central, the Church of Christian Fellowship, Greater Bethany, and Zion Hill Baptist, these spaces of worship helped define the cultural, and religious landscape of Black Los Angeles.

In the realm of social and political awareness, organizations like the United Clergy of South Los Angeles, the Interdenominational Alliance, The Black Agenda, and the Western Christian Leadership Conference stood up against police brutality, calmed racial tensions, and provided the base for the heyday of Black electoral politics. African American pastors also held key positions of leadership in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and routinely hosted the organization’s meetings and events. While the strife and destruction of the Watts Riots is often presented as the dominant narrative of Los Angeles during the civil rights movement, often ignored are the efforts of the organized clergy in insuring that the unrest did not spread to other Black enclaves in the city. When 25-year-old Leonard Deadwyler was gunned down by a Los Angeles Police Department officer less than a year later, it was the religious leadership of the Black community that provided economic and moral support for the victim’s family while forcing the city to conduct a full investigation into the practices of the LAPD.4

Although the Black religious community was rocked by the violent murders of some of its most visible leaders in the mid 1970s (Arthur Smith, Thurston Frazier, and Arthur A. Peters), it was still able to propel Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Diane Watson, Maxine Waters, Mervyn Dymally, and Rita Walters to electoral victory. One must never forget that it was the success of the 10th District Recall Committee in 1962, led by First AME’s H. Hartford Brookins, which opened the door for the election of Tom Bradley to the Los Angeles City Council a year later.

A Changing of the Guard: The L.A. Insurrection and its Effect on the Black Church in Los Angeles

The L.A. Riots ended the political career of Tom Bradley and introduced the nation to the new face of Black religious leadership in the city. Leveraging their existing expertise in community redevelopment with the exposure and resources that the civil unrest brought to the city, a handful of large congregations were transformed into “megachurches” providing a myriad of spiritual and social services to the community at large. With membership rolls in the tens of thousands, Crenshaw Christian Center, Faithful Central Bible Church, City of Refuge (formerly Greater Bethany), First AME, and West Angeles Church of God in Christ built senior and low-income housing, opened and expanded schools, and invested money and social capital into the commercial revitalization of South Los Angeles.

Demographic Change and its Effect on the Church

Black Exodus: The Outmigration of African Americans from Los Angeles

In an interesting paradox, the growth of African American megachurches masked the fact that the city was progressively losing its Black population. Highlighting a trend that began in the mid 1980s, this demographic collapse led to a decrease in both the size and number of traditional African American churches and a reconstitution of Black enclaves into cities like Palmdale and Lancaster to the north and Riverside and San Bernardino counties to the east.5 When coupled with the movement of large numbers of Latino residents into South Los Angeles, the area looks and feels very different than it did in the 1960s and 1970s.6

The flight of African Americans out of Los Angeles presents one of the greatest challenges to the Black Church. Although its 2000 population of more than 415,000 still placed L.A. as the seventh largest Black population center in the U.S., African Americans were only 11.2 percent of the city’s population. This percentage ranked 127th among cities with more than 100,000 persons. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000)

Year Total Number Percent of
City Population
1940 63,774 4.2%
1950 171,209 8.7%
1960 334,916 13.5%
1970 503,606 17.9%
1980 504,674 17%
1990 487,674 13%
2000 415,195 11.2%
2009 371,352 9.8%

(Source: U.S. Census and 2005-2009 American Community Survey)

Preliminary census projections indicate that the total number and overall percentage African Americans in the city will both decrease in 2010. A result of their diminishing numbers, African Americans are now the smallest major ethnic group in the city behind Latinos, whites, and Asians.

Although large numbers of African Americans are leaving the city, they are not necessarily leaving the immediate area. Whereas Compton and Inglewood historically served as the top sites of Black sprawl from Los Angeles, cities like Palmdale (13.7%), Lancaster (18.4%), San Bernardino (16.3%) and Moreno Valley (17.7%) now boast high percentages of African Americans. The vast majority of these residents are transplants from Los Angeles and Compton. (U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2005-09)

Comments  While the “pull” of low housing prices is one force driving the outmigration of Blacks from Los Angeles, one cannot discount the effect that mid-1980’s gang wars, the 1992 civil unrest, and a long-standing perception of an anti-Black Los Angeles Police Department had on “pushing” Black residents out of the city. From Police Chief Darryl Gates’ infamous “Batter Ram,” to lead network news stories about Crips, Bloods, drive-by shootings, and crack cocaine, the image of Black Los Angeles as a place in need “resurrection” is still a driving metaphor in the regional and national consciousness. These portrayals of Los Angeles, and more specifically, South Central and Compton, are exacerbated by their stigmatization in American popular culture. Through iconic films like “Boyz n the Hood” and “Menace II Society,” along with the mass appeal of the pioneering rap group NWA and the infamous music label Death Row Records, Black Los Angeles, like Hollywood, became as much a myth as a reality.


  • How do churches build a long-term agenda in the midst of an ever-moving population base?
  • How do faith leaders instill a sense of pride within a stigmatized community?

Immigration and Its Impact on the Black Church in Los Angeles

The New Black Americans

Whereas the traditional Black migrant to Los Angeles came from the American South, the contemporary face of the Black community is increasingly international. Hailing primarily from East and West Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean, these individuals now account for more than 10 percent of the city’s “Black” population (U.S. Census Bureau, America Community Survey). With Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Belize, Honduras, Panama, and Ghana as some of the most common places of origin, these Americans are breathing new life into traditional communities and birthing a number of alternative religious narratives.

For two generations Baptists, Methodists, Black Muslims, and Pentecostals dominated the city’s Black social, political, and religious landscape. Coming from a different historical space, L.A.’s foreign-born Black population includes large numbers of Sufi and Sunni Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists, and a broad range of independent Charismatic and Evangelical faith communities.

Entering the doors of a sanctuary like Breath of Life Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the diversity of accents and life experiences tell the story of a thriving community where traditional African Americans and first and second generation immigrants worship and organize together.

Whether touring through Little Ethiopia, attending the annual African Marketplace, or witnessing the growing number of chocolate complexioned women wearing hijab on the bus stop, it is clear that a new drum is beating in the heart of the city.


Latinos, primarily from Central America and Mexico, are the new face of South Los Angeles and Compton. As opposed to the demographic pattern of the early 1980s, this community is increasingly native born. Defying stereotypes of origin, culture, and religious expression, Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups of Pentecostals in Los Angeles, the nation, and the world.

While it is still true that the vast majority of these individuals are members of the Catholic Church, Latinos, like African Americans, are by no means a monolithic group. Including Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans and large groups of Black Panamanians, Belizeans, and Hondurans, L.A.’s Latino community is fueled by the social, political, and economic changes that swept through Mexico and Central America during the 1980s and 1990s.

In recent years, tensions between African American and Latino residents, especially at local high schools, paint an increasingly unrealistic picture of conflict and confrontation. To witness another take on the current status between the two groups, one need only visit a local supermarket, public library, and the majority of K-12 classrooms to see the two groups coexisting in a mosaic that showcases new possibilities for the city and nation.

Comments  One of the traps that ensnares traditional African American communities as they transition into predominately Latino or Black immigrant communities is their tendency to develop an “us versus them” mindset. Holding onto an unfounded hope that the Black community will somehow regenerate itself through a still undetermined force of nature or social upheaval, African American faith communities at times enable these unconstructive ideas as they struggle to explain decreasing membership rolls, aging congregations, and declining donations. Paranoia around the increasing numbers of Latino students at traditionally Black high schools (e.g. Washington, Dorsey, Crenshaw, Jordan, Locke, and Centennial), the decline of formerly powerful Black spaces of worship, and the large-scale erasure of Black wealth due to falling homes values, provides fuel for this mindset.7

While the scenario described above can be the reality that paralyzes the city’s Black communities for generations, faith can be the conduit that redirects this angst and anxiety. Using the language of equity, inclusion, and social justice, faith leaders and congregations can become the catalyst for the development of a mental and social outlook that serves as the glue binding a diverse population in 21st century Los Angeles. If these leaders and congregations are able to look past their communal sense of loss and embrace the universal concepts of justice and fairness that helped to define the Black Church for most of its history, they can begin writing a new history for the city and the nation.

While print and broadcast news tend to highlight the flashpoints of division between the two groups, the ever-growing number of English and Spanish signs on church buildings announcing both African American and Latino worship services speak to another reality. For faith leaders and congregations that are willing to stop and talk as their respective congregations trade places on Sunday mornings, there is an opportunity to begin creating relationships of substance. In addition to shared spaces and faith traditions, social engagement around the issues of education and reform of the criminal justice system represent prime areas where the two communities can initiate dialogue and build ministry.


  • Grounded in theological concepts centered on concern for the stranger, can traditional African American churches become sites of refuge and strength for new immigrants?
  • Given the high number of African Americans and Latinos in low-performing schools and the criminal justice system, can a common sentiment of righteous indignation be the conduit for faith-based collaboration between the two groups?

The Declining Rate of Marriage and Its Impact on the Black Church

In addition to the challenges and opportunities brought about by the changing migration patterns of groups into and out of Los Angeles, the Black Church must also contend with one of the other major demographic changes in the Black community over the past 40 years—the declining rate of marriage.

While the drop in marriage rates and changes in attitudes towards marriage are realities for all American racial groups, they are particularly acute
in the African American community. According to the U.S. Census, between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Black adults age 15 and older who have never married rose from 28.5% to 44.9%.

The subject of Stanford University Law Professor Ralph Banks’ recent book, Is Marriage for White People, the issue has been a topic of anxiety
for Blacks, especially women, for a generation. Between 1950 and 2000 the percentage of married Black women declined from 62% to 36.1%. Among white women, the corresponding decline was from 66% to 57.4%.8

Comments  The general concern regarding the bleak prospects for marriage in the African American community is evident in the success of mainstream authors like Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and a growing throng of faith-based relationship experts, led by Michelle McKinney Hammond (101 Ways to Get and Keep His Attention; If Singleness is a Gift, What’s the Return Policy). It is also one of the key factors in the monumental rise of the leading African American televangelist T.D. Jakes. Using television, books (e.g. Loose That Man and Let Him Go; The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord; God’s Leading Lady, etc.) and the national distribution of major films like “Woman Thou Art Loosed,” “Not Easily Broken,” and “Jumping the Broom,” Jakes captured the burgeoning anxiety of African American women and built one of the nation’s most prominent ministries.

With sales in the millions, these and other authors, ministers, and filmmakers are tapping into a reality that is ever present in African American churches throughout the country. A reflection of a national change in attitudes regarding marriage, high black male incarceration rates, and lingering taboos against interracial relationships, it is incumbent upon faith leaders and congregations to find ways to assist individuals and communities with innovative ways of navigating through these new relational realities.


  • Are national debates around same-sex marriage distracting attention away from larger shifts in attitudes about marriage generally?
  • Given traditional teaching on the subject of marriage, how do faith leaders organize and inspire around changing attitudes towards the institution?

Daniel Walker was a research associate with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture until 2012.