About 30 black community activists, mobilized by the Brotherhood Crusade, gather outside a South-Central wig shop to condemn the Korean American owners for allegedly refusing to wait on a black man. What really happened after the Rev. Lee May walked into the Accessory House on Vermont Avenue near Slauson Avenue? The story of what led to Tuesday's protest comes in two distinct versions: one claiming racism, the other blaming miscommunication. These accounts offered Wednesday provide another sobering lesson about the competing cultures of Los Angeles and the difficulties that sometimes occur when they rub up against each other.
The Rev. Lee May said all he wanted to do was buy a gift for his wife, Dianne.
What he got was the central role in a protest campaign.
May, 48, pastor of First AME Church in Pasadena, said that when he walked into the Accessory House on Jan. 20, the store was deserted except for two customers, both African American women.
No sales people appeared to assist him, so he immediately started browsing. That's when an Asian man who appeared to be one of three shopkeepers confronted him, he said.
"I was going to buy a hat for my wife. [The store] was recommended to me by one of my sisters.
"After I had been in there about 15 minutes looking at all the hats, I was about to ask for some help because I wanted to look at a hat that was out of my reach.
"One of the owners--I assume--came up to me and said they were sorry, it was a store for women only. He kept saying, 'Women only. Women only. No men. No men.'
"I said I didn't see a sign outside that said no men. He said, 'No men allowed.'
"I said, 'You don't want me in this store as a man?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'You don't want me in the store as an African American man?' He said, 'Yes. No men.'
"I said, 'You're not sure what you're saying, nor do you know who you are talking to.'
"He said, 'No men, no men. Scared of.'
"I said, 'You're afraid of me because I'm an African American man. If you have a problem with that you need to reconsider having a store that's open to the public.' Then he went on to say that they were going to call the police.
"I said, 'Please do. I wish you would.'
"Then the lady said, 'No. No. We don't want to do that. I just wish you would leave. I'm getting a headache.'
"I pulled out one of my cards and gave it to the man. I said, 'I'll be back in touch. This is not the end of this' ."
May took his grievance to the Brotherhood Crusade, a charitable organization headed by Danny Bakewell. The organization said it sent a dozen black men in succession to the shop. All were refused service, Bakewell said. He is threatening a boycott if he does not get an apology for May.
For now, May said, he has not filed any kind of formal complaint with authorities. "We hope to get some kind of audience" with the store's owners, he said.
May said that there were witnesses to the incident.
"There . . . were two other black women [customers] in the store. They didn't say anything, to my dismay. They were in the store when I got there. They had to have heard it.
"Another woman who was coming in toward the end of the conversation made a comment something like, 'This is terrible.'
"The people who come into the store are all black.
"If a man's got a store, you can't just discriminate against people. I want to know if he's discriminating against African American men."
May said there was nothing about his behavior or dress that was threatening. He had officiated at a funeral earlier that day and was still wearing a black suit, a tie and a tam, he said. He does not believe that he misunderstood the merchants or that they misunderstood him.
"I did not say anything. They started saying it to me.
"I went down the street to another shop later and bought a hat. They were Asians, too, and there was no problem. They even complimented me for buying a hat for my wife.
At the Accessory House, he said, "it's a case where the man is threatened by and has a fear of African American males. He wants African American women to come in and support his business and to deny African American males. Seems he has a great fear of African American men and his business is in an African American neighborhood.
"The community needs to be aware of this," May said. The shopkeeper "needs to go and get him some kind of cultural sensitivity" training.