Three days before the rioting began, the Rev. Cecil L. Murray took to the pulpit for his Sunday sermon.
“Be cool,” Murray implored. “Even in anger, be cool.”
For weeks, the 62-year-old pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church had watched anger and distrust grow in his community with each replaying of the video — the inescapable footage showing Los Angeles police officers cruelly beating Rodney King.
“And if you’re gonna burn something down, don’t burn down the house of the victims, brother! Burn down the Legislature! Burn down the courtroom!” he said.
His words were an appeal for calm, an effort to temper brewing frustrations as the jury deliberation was about to go into its fourth day.
He wiped the sweat off his brow. Behind him on the altar, a mural depicted the church’s illustrious history in the city. In front of him, above the pews filled with parishioners, were the the words, “First to Serve.”
“Burn it down by voting, brother! Burn it down by standing with us at Parker Center, brother! Burn it down by saying to [Police Chief] Daryl Gates: ‘This far, and no farther!’”
It was April 1992. Murray had led the city’s oldest and perhaps most politically active black church for almost 15 years. Back then, First AME played an outsized role in South Los Angeles, serving as a political and religious forum and a place for dialogue about issues facing the city — most notably the community’s rocky relations with the police department.
The oldest black congregation in L.A., First AME was the place national politicians went to reach black voters. It also was a social services organization that helped with housing, childhood education and low-income loans. The church — built in the Late Modern style by famed African American architect Paul R. Williams — sits on a bluff in the West Adams district, long a fashionable address for the city’s black residents, with commanding views of Los Angeles.
The King tape, with its grainy and harshly lit images, offered proof to the world of the brutal disregard the Los Angeles Police Department had for African Americans. The trial of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno had become a test of justice.
“The defense attorneys,” Murray continued, his voice rising in indignation, “are trying to convince us that we didn’t see what we thought we saw on that video. I don’t know what you saw, but I saw a man being brutalized! I saw an unarmed man being brutalized! I saw an unarmed, prostrate man being brutalized!”
But only a few believed that justice would be served, and Murray feared for the worst. Twenty-seven years earlier, six days of looting and arson had consumed the neighborhood of Watts. Thirty-four people had died.
The city, Murray believed, could not afford a replay of that violence.
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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times – Angel Jennings