Cecil Murray, First African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor who calmed Los Angeles after ’92 riots, dies at 94

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LOS ANGELES (KABC) — The Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, who served as pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church for 27 years and was noted for his calming presence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, has died at age 94.

Murray died Friday, according to the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. His son Drew Murray told the Los Angeles Times that Murray died of natural causes at his home in the View Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

“We are sad to announce the passing of the Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray. He trained 1,000 leaders in civic engagement and community development through University of Southern California, after an illustrious career as pastor of FAME Church. He is mourned by the countless individuals he has mentored, counseled and prayed over during his life of service. Our condolences to his family and all those who called him pastor,” the center said in a Facebook post.

Cecil Murray, First AME pastor who calmed LA after

USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Serving the First African Methodist Episcopal Church

During his tenure at FAME, the city’s oldest Black church, from 1977 to 2004, Murray helped grow its congregation from 250 to more than 18,000 members and attracted high-profile visitors including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with multiple governors and Los Angeles mayors.

Following his retirement, Murray embarked on a second career as a Tansey Professor of Christian Ethics and chair of the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at USC from 2005 to 2022, where he trained more than 1,000 faith leaders in the “Murray Method,” which focused on tackling community needs by moving from what he called “description to prescription.”

In 1992, Murray gained national attention for helping to calm tensions during the riots sparked by the April 29, 1992, acquittal of four police officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King, and playing a key role in rebuilding South Los Angeles after the uprising ended.

“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.”

Murray tapped one of his parishioners, Mark Whitlock, who worked in commercial real estate, to secure investments and real estate developments to help restore communities left devastated after the rioting.

FAME hired 180 people as part of the effort and Murray oversaw the launch of FAME Renaissance, the church’s economic development unit, which attracted $400 million in corporate investment for the community.

“We were able to create 4,000 jobs,” Whitlock, now a pastor at Reid Temple AME Church in Maryland, told PBS in 2020. “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.”

Then-President George H.W. Bush named the church the “177th Point of Light” as part of his Points of Light nonprofit initiative.

Who was Rev. Cecil Murray?

Murray was born on Sept. 26, 1929, in Lakeland, Florida.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University in 1951 and joined the United States Air Force after graduation where he served during the Korean War as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Defense Command and as a navigator in the Air Transport Command.

Murray retired as a reserve major in 1958 and was decorated with a Soldier’s Medal of Valor.

He earned his Ph.D. in religion from the School of Theology at Claremont College in 1964 and served as a pastor at churches in Pomona, Kansas City and Seattle before coming to FAME in Los Angeles where he showed up sporting an Afro and a dashiki and started to transform the church from a staid congregation of traditional hymns and little civic activism to one that included drums and guitars during services.

Los Angeles media consultant Kerman Maddox said he had avoided church membership, but Murray’s passion pulled him into the congregation in 1984 after he visited FAME to hear Jesse Jackson speak while running for president.

“I saw this guy (Murray) and said, ‘Wow, he’s different,'” Maddox told The Times in 2004. “He was getting involved in the neighborhood, the community, Jesse’s campaign. I still wasn’t sold, but it made me go back again.”

Murray’s wife of 54 years, Bernardine, who gave him the nickname “Chip,” died in 2013. His survivors include his son, Drew.

Reactions pour in for pastor of Los Angeles

Following the announcement of his death, celebrity figures and city officials issued words about Murray’s impact.

“Today we lost a giant,” L.A. Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement. “Reverend Dr. Cecil Murray dedicated his life to service, community, and putting God first in all things. I had the absolute honor of working with him, worshiping with him, and seeking his counsel. My heart is with the First AME congregation and community today as we reflect on a legacy that changed this city forever.”

Interim LAPD Chief Dominic Choi took to social media platform X to offer his condolences.

“Sending heartfelt condolences to the family and community mourning the loss of Reverend Dr. Cecil Murray. His legacy of compassion, leadership, and dedication to uplifting South Los Angeles will forever inspire us. Rest in peace, Reverend Murray.”

Others like Magic Johnson offered similar messages.

City News contributed to this report.

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