Civil Rights Giant John Mack Leaves L.A. So Much Better than He Found It

John Mack speaks in the PBS documentary The Powerbroker, on the legacy of civil rights leader Whitney Young.
John Mack speaks in the PBS documentary The Powerbroker, on the legacy of civil rights leader Whitney Young.

Today, as Los Angeles mourns the passing of life-long civil rights advocate John Mack, we take a moment to reflect on what Mack’s loss means for the city and for the communities he fought so hard to uplift. He forced the city to be so much better than it ever aspired to be and we are grateful that he did.

As president of the Los Angeles Urban League from 1969 to 2005, member of the LAPD Police Commission from 2005 to 2013, and member of the City Planning Commission until just a few weeks ago, Mack was not one to keep quiet on issues impacting his community.

His life of activism was an outgrowth of the work he had engaged in since his youth. Born to a Methodist minister and a school teacher in the Jim Crow South in 1937, he had gone on to lead his college NAACP chapter. In 1960 – two years after graduating from North Carolina A&T State and while pursuing his Master’s in Social Work at Atlanta University – he co-organized student sit-ins and co-founded the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights with fellow leaders from other historically black colleges and universities. Together, they actively decried the hypocrisy of a democracy that aggressively denied its black citizens equal access to education, jobs, housing, health care, voting, and recreational opportunities, deliberately mistreated and discriminated against them, and denied them their basic humanity.

His activism would raise his profile within the movement for civil rights – he was mentored by both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Whitney Young. But with that raised profile came more danger. While living in the South, he was chased by the Klan and, according to his wife Harriet, had a $90,000 bounty put on his head at one point.

He remained undaunted. And he would bring that same tenacity to the Los Angeles Urban League when he arrived in 1969, unafraid to lift his voice on behalf of his community while diligently cobbling together the resources that would help serve it in more tangible ways.

According to a 2005 L.A. Times profile of him, “In his first six months, Mack plunged into school desegregation; pushed for the hiring of blacks on construction sites; hosted a major fundraiser, a football game and a battle of the bands between two black colleges, that attracted 65,000 to the Coliseum; and boosted the league’s membership with a benefit concert at the Shrine Auditorium starring board member and singer Nancy Wilson.”

His capacity for bridge-building was what made it possible for a previously-middling local chapter to make such tremendous strides and raise both its local and national profiles in such a short space of time. At times, that approach could be used against him – fuel for claims that he wasn’t acting on behalf of the community (as in the dispute over the League’s acceptance of money from Wal-Mart and support for its bid to come into the community). But Mack would argue it was all in service of a larger cause.

Mack would continue to raise his voice on behalf of black workers, rail against disinvestment, and lobby for investment that did not undermine black ownership in the community throughout the 1980s and 90s. And under his leadership, the League would establish the Milken Youth Family Literacy and Youth Training Center in 1989 as a way to shore up the foundation of the community. The center focused on literacy, mentorship, job preparation and training, and providing a safe haven from the streets for youth and adults alike.

As tensions rose in the weeks leading up to the Rodney King verdict, Mack worked with Rev. Cecil L. Murray, then-mayor Tom Bradley, and other black leaders to try to put a plan in place to safeguard peace. And in the years after 1992, he would continue to work to bring funds and resources to Inglewood and build partnerships, like that with Toyota in South Central, to try to bridge the gaps the city remained so reluctant to close. All told, the League’s programs would come to serve over 100,000 residents a year under Mack – a tough act to follow in more recent years, thanks to changes in the the funding landscape, the recession, and the loss of the building where the League stood for so many years.

Even with the complexity of the challenges the League faced in addressing the legacy of disenfranchisement, Mack said in a recent lecture that he counted his many battles with the LAPD among the most difficult he endured over his long career of service. Describing the Darryl Gates-era LAPD as a “brutal, racist institution” that had “operated like an occupational force” in the black community, he recalled how hard it had been to get L.A.’s leadership to take seriously the choke-hold deaths of young black men, to push out leaders like the overtly racist Gates, and to put in place the kind of infrastructure that could begin to rein in the power of the LAPD.

If L.A.’s leadership had hoped that his retirement from the League in 2005 and subsequent appointment to the Police Commission would temper that frankness, they were likely disappointed. Just prior to his appointment to the commission, Mack had spoken to reporters about the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown – killed when officer Steve Garcia opened fire on him as he backed a stolen car towards the officer. Mack had called the incident a “tragedy,” expressed sympathy for Brown’s family, and declared that the officer had not been in danger and should not have shot Brown. Once appointed to the commission, he continued to weigh in publicly by criticizing the slow pace of the investigation into the incident.

His outspokenness and the commission’s eventual ruling that the officer should be disciplined over the “out of policy” shooting drew national attention, including the critique that Mack’s past advocacy against police brutality rendered him incapable of objectivity. Author Jack Dunphy, himself a former LAPD officer and someone who continues to question the existence of implicit and institutional biases in his current writings, went on to challenge Mack’s integrity and ability to serve on the commission, stating that comments like the ones Mack made prior to his appointment are the reason “why LAPD officers…view his continued service on the Police Commission as an insult.”

Serving as the only black member of the commission and continuing to speak out did not get any easier, especially as he shepherded the LAPD through the reform process and implementation of the consent decree. Mack acknowledged as much in an interview with Jill Leovy of the L.A. Times about his decision to accept the post. As someone who had stood on the side of the community activists for so long, he said, “The community views me as a strong advocate on the commission. They think I can come in and wave a magic wand.”

He knew the reality would be more difficult and that, to the casual observer, it might not look like he was bringing radical change. But he vowed to stay true to his core principles.

“I will call it as I see it,” he said at the time. “As a young person, I made a commitment to do all I could to create a level playing field on behalf of my people and to devote my life not just to changing Georgia and the South, but America. So this is not a play thing for me…I’m not in this to win a popularity contest. I’m in this to bring about change.”

He took that approach to the City Planning Commission, as well, where he had served from 2013 until very recently. As major projects aiming to reshape the landscape in South Central came before the commission, Mack could always be counted on to gently remind those present of the marginalization his community had endured and of the need to explicitly address that legacy in the plans – via more affordable housing, stronger hiring provisions, etc. – in order for the community to have a shot at benefiting from a project.

But his legacy endures far beyond the commissions he served on, as seen by the tributes that poured in via social media today.

Locally and nationally, the Urban League lamented the fall of a giant oak in the movement.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. offered his condolences.

Area justice organizations also lamented his passing.

So did Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials.

And so did Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who Mack had worked closely with in the hopes of seeing a black-owned theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

Rest in power, Mr. Mack.

  • Dominic

    Hey can you change the school name to Atlanta University because the school Clark Atlanta University wasn’t established until 1988. Thank you

  • sahra

    You’re right… I pulled from several sources yesterday and even went to the university’s website to make sure I got the name right because I was seeing it a few different ways, but didn’t think to check to see when the two had consolidated. Many thanks!

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