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Rev. Cecil 'Chip' Murray: The Reverend Who Led the Rebuilding of South L.A. After the 1992 Riots

After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.

 

At age 90, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray has lived through war, Jim Crow, the Space Race, the civil rights movement, and the worst episode of civil unrest in Los Angeles — the 1992 riots. 

“Our nation has come a long way, and we still have a long way to go,” he told KCET while reflecting on this chapter in L.A.’s history. 

As pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church of Los Angeles, the city’s oldest black church, Murray played a key role in fostering economic and social change in South L.A. after the uprising — spurred by the April 29, 1992, acquittal of four police officers videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King the previous year. Outraged by the verdict and by the racial and economic justice in their communities, the most marginalized Angelenos took to the streets. They set fires, overturned cars, vandalized and pillaged stores, and sometimes attacked bystanders. The 1992 Uprising has often been described as an outgrowth of racial tensions between Blacks and Whites and Blacks and Korean American storeowners, one of whom killed black teenager Latasha Harlins two weeks after the Rodney King beating. Latinos, however, also heavily took part in the civil unrest, accounting for 51 percent of the arrests made during the rebellion

As the unrest raged on, Murray delivered sermons that both condemned the violence and called out the systemic oppression that sparked them. “We are not proud that we set those fires, but we’d like to make a distinction to America this morning about the difference between setting a fire and starting a fire,” he told his congregation on May 3, 1992, the day the unrest ended. “We set some of those fires, 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.” 

May 3, 1992: Rev. Cecil Murray Preaches as the Fires of the L.A. Riots Burn

After the uprising ended, Murray not only raised awareness about the inequalities that black Angelenos faced—speaking with elected officials about the impact that joblessness, crime, and the crack epidemic had on his community—he also oversaw the launch of FAME Renaissance, the church’s economic development arm tasked with helping to rebuild South L.A.; it brought jobs, housing and $400 million in corporate investment to the community

The Rev. Mark Whitlock, now pastor of Reid Temple AME Church in Maryland, was a member of Murray’s congregation in 1992. Since Whitlock worked in commercial real estate, having served as an executive at Wells Fargo Bank and Chicago Title Insurance Co., Murray sought his expertise about redeveloping South L.A. after the unrest. Ultimately, Whitlock secured investments from the Walt Disney Co., the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, and other funding sources. 

“We were able to create 4,000 jobs,” Whitlock said. “We developed real estate extensively throughout South Central Los Angeles. He [Murray] is a remarkable leader. He’s 90 years old, but his legacy continues through many of the real estate projects. He was the spiritual leader, the voice that moved the city and kept the city peaceful.”

FAME hired 180 people for its economic redevelopment effort, and then-President George H. W. Bush named the church the “177th Point of Light” because of its service to the community. That title comes from the late president’s Points of Light nonprofit focused on volunteerism and social change.

In 2004, Murray stepped down as pastor after a 27-year tenure at the church, the congregation of which he grew from roughly 300 members to 18,000. Eight years later, the University of Southern California launched the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, which provides guidance to churches about their community development initiatives. The center’s work ensures that the pastor’s approach to civic engagement, known as the “Murray Method,” lives on. It is part of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where Murray is a university fellow.

“The Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement has connected the university to scores of churches, both Black and Brown, in Southern California,” said Donald E. Miller, the Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion in USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “Lessons that Chip learned as the pastor of First AME Church were passed on to congregations wanting to develop community development programs. ... Whenever I enter his office door, he stands and gives me a big hug, followed by a penetrating question — something he has been pondering, such as the future of the church in a secular society.”

Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray pointing up to the sky. | Courtesy of Jerry Berndt
Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray pointing up to the sky. | Courtesy of Jerry Berndt

Since Murray guided South L.A. through 1992’s civil unrest, the neighborhood has undergone significant changes. Racial demographics have shifted, with many middle-class Blacks moving to places like the Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire — and some leaving the state entirely. Now, gentrification is a problem, and the city’s homeless crisis is one of its most pressing issues. Through it all, Angelenos are still grappling with the best way to live with one another, Murray says.

“Before the civil unrest of 1992, our nation was struggling with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which had pushed civil rights to the frontline, to the attention of our nation,” he said. “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians were wondering, ‘How can we peacefully coexist? Can we coexist? We discovered the hard way that you cannot exist in a vacuum. The greatest challenge of humankind is to say, ‘We are family. I am you, and you are me.’” 

During his May 3, 1992, sermon, Murray pointed out that whether “Black or White, all are precious in his sight,” but that African Americans in South L.A. felt excluded as the city’s “black sheep,” invoking Jesus Christ’s reference to himself as the “good shepherd” and to Christians as his “sheep.”

“The bad shepherd loves all of his sheep, except the black sheep,” Murray said then.

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Given that the labor of African Americans shaped the nation and that people of African descent co-founded Los Angeles, the social ills in South L.A. heightened the sense of alienation in the community, according to Murray. Black Angelenos resented that newly arrived immigrants could come to the United States and achieve the American dream while they were cast aside. They questioned why the Statue of Liberty had failed them, he said.

“Blacks felt as though they had been here for hundreds of years — they had built America, built its highways and byways, and, yet, Hispanics were treated far better, Asians were treated far better, Whites were treated far better,” Murray said. “The challenge is for Americans to make room for each other.”

A Florida native, Murray became the pastor of FAME L.A. 12 years after the 1965 Watts Riots devastated the city for reasons similar to why the 1992 rebellion occurred — police brutality, economic inequality and racism. He led the church as the AIDS crisis decimated South L.A. residents, the crack epidemic led to their arrests and imprisonment, and gang violence snuffed out their futures. But Murray made an effort to make sure that men from the community were involved in his church, largely so they could be a source of strength and stability in the neighborhood.

“We worked hard to build up male attendance at First AME during my 27 years pastoring there because the Black church, predominantly on Sunday mornings, when you look around in the sanctuary, the majority of the worshippers are female,” he said. “Our congregation, particularly the men, felt we simply must make a statement to California generally, to Southern California particularly, and to Los Angeles most particularly.”

Two-hundred men from the church regularly patrolled South L.A. streets. They walked on Friday nights as well as after Sunday services, forming ties with men who didn’t attend FAME. Their presence sent residents the message that the church not only cared about the community but was invested in it too. It wasn’t the first time Murray had employed the strategy. As the pastor of a church in Kansas City, Missouri, where he served prior to his tenure at FAME L.A., Murray also urged male members to walk the streets.

“We would march together. We would protest together for civil rights and civil liberties, so the gangs would not be fighting each other,” he recalled. “We tried to get them to look beyond the idea of church being one day per week to it being a seven-day a week commitment.”

Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray crossing his arms. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture
Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray crossing his arms. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Having grown up in the Jim Crow South and served in the U.S. Air Force when it was newly integrated, Murray was accustomed to fighting for his rights. But he was also a peacemaker, used to being a voice for individuals who could not speak up. When the 1992 civil unrest began, the men’s ministry he’d launched — along with the church’s Skid Row, business development, housing, youth, and AIDS ministries — made FAME uniquely suited to represent South L.A. to America.

“We met with the mayor. We met with the governor. We went to Washington, D.C,” Murray recalled. “We had three sitting presidents come and address our congregation.”

Whitlock remembers this period well. That lawmakers and businesspeople already attended FAME before the civil unrest made it easier to attract public figures afterward, he said. 

“Mayor Bradley belonged to the church,” Whitlock said. “It was the central spot for federal, state and local politicians to meet. It had a congregation of very successful executives, and I was one of them.”

The church’s influence in the community allowed it “to take the sanctuary to the street,” Whitlock said, “to be able to really help people who needed that help.”  

George W. Bush was one of the presidents who visited FAME, dropping by the church in 2002 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the civil unrest.

“I fully understand that ten years ago this city because of violence, a lot of violence, saw incredible destruction in lives and in property," Bush said during his visit. “A lot of hopes were lost, and yet out of this violence and ugliness came new hope.”

But not everyone agreed. Motorists and pedestrians at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, the epicenter of the 1992 rebellion, shouted out that “nothing’s changed” during Bush’s visit to the area. A 2002 Los Angeles Times poll found that 69% of those surveyed believed that the city had made progress toward healing, while another survey found that 50% of poll respondents believed that another set of riots were possible.

Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray extending his arms out. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture
Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray extending his arms out. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Today, Murray concedes that, “We feel that we got a lot accomplished, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

He would like to see a woman president and a steep drop in Los Angeles homelessness, a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans. But, mostly, his desires aren’t much different from those he expressed during an Oct. 1, 1995, sermon he gave as the O.J. Simpson trial concluded, and fears mounted that the city would explode into riots once more.

“All we want is justice,” Murray said at the time. “All we want is economic parity. All we want is political sanction. All we want is fairness.”

 

The project to publish approximately 400 sermons given by Reverend Cecil “Chip” Murray in the USC Digital Library has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Top image: Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray extending his arms out. | Courtesy of Center for Religion and Civic Culture

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