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Mourners Say Farewell to One of Riots' Heroes : Funeral: The Rev. Bennie Newton, an ex-convict, had built a reputation for saving lives long before he threw himself over a man being beaten by a mob.

May 02, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was one of the searing images of last year's riots, one that spoke of humanity in the midst of rage.

As rioters swirled around him at Florence and Normandie avenues, the Rev. Bennie Newton--Bible in hand--stood guard over a Latino construction worker who had been yanked from his truck and savagely beaten by a mob. "Kill him," the minister yelled, "and you have to kill me too!"

On Saturday, Fidel Lopez came to the Peace Apostolic Church in Carson to thank Newton again--and to say goodby. "Last year, this good man save me," the Guatemalan immigrant said in broken English as he stood above Newton's flower-draped coffin. "This is a good country. We are supposed to live together and be in peace."

Newton, 60, an ex-convict, died April 24 of leukemia, leaving a wife, seven children, eight grandchildren and hundreds of friends and admirers who drew inspiration from his transformation.

He was eulogized as far more than an instant hero. Rather, he was a man driven to heroism by a deep belief in love among the races.

"A lot of us carry our Bibles, but how many really know it?" asked Laverne Smith, a longtime friend. "There are not many men in Los Angeles who would do what he did," Pastor Robert Caldwell said.

Newton understood well the darker impulses of human nature. He had served time in such prisons as San Quentin for a variety of crimes, including armed robbery, pimping and drug possession. When Mayor Tom Bradley gave Newton a commendation for his courage last year, it was their second meeting. Thirty-five years before, Los Angeles Police Officer Bradley arrested Newton for pimping and drug dealing.

"Every prisoner from Pelican Bay to San Quentin knew who Bennie Newton was," Chaplain Bob Macdo said. "You know his background."

In the late 1970s, Newton "stopped running from God" and had a spiritual awakening, said Lanett Pricke, his niece.

He launched his own carpet-cleaning business, and employed ex-convicts. In 1980, he formed the Light of Love Outreach Ministry in Westchester, which ministered to young people in county jails and on Skid Row. "Saving lives was an everyday event for Bennie Newton," said Randall England, another friend.

But it was his rescue of Lopez that brought him into the public eye.

In the early hours of last year's riots, Newton was headed to a peace rally when he heard news of the ongoing beatings at Florence and Normandie. He arrived to see Lopez, who had been torn from his truck. The mob used a stereo speaker to bash Lopez in the head. They tried to cut off an ear; they stomped on his chest.

Newton, wearing his priest's collar, threw his body over Lopez. Newton later gave $3,015 in donations he had received after the riots to help Lopez recover. In recent months, the two men--one African-American, the other Latino--had become good friends, visiting together more than 20 times. Lopez had made several trips to Newton's bedside during the last few weeks.

They planned to take a trip together to Guatemala.

"He's an example for everyone," said Lopez, 47, who still suffers dizzy spells and chest pains but returned to his job six months ago. "Hopefully, we will see each other again," he said, pointing upward.

Immediately after the riots, Newton founded Project Unity, a nonprofit group. The fledgling organization, which has garnered about $10,000 in small donations, has begun an after-school tutoring program in eight churches for about 100 children, mostly in South-Central Los Angeles.

"When he went out into the riots, he did it as much for the victimizers as for the victims," said his sister, Deborah Dyas. "He saw the hopelessness in their faces."

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