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Gentleman warrior

Urban League's John Mack leaves a daunting civil rights legacy.

June 27, 2005|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Heads turn and murmuring begins when the distinguished, silver-haired African American walks through Harold and Belle's, a popular Creole restaurant in southwest Los Angeles.

A professor looks up from her shrimp and crawfish etouffee. Genteel little old ladies dressed to the nines for lunch grab at his hands. Diners approach his table before he can savor the shrimp, crab, smoked beef sausage, ham and chicken thickening his file gumbo.

"Isn't that John Mack from the Urban League?" a diner asks. "I know him from TV."

They know him from images like these: famously leading then-President George H. W. Bush on a tour after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a photo-op seen round the world; calling for the resignation of then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates; showing Prince Charles the Los Angeles Urban League Automotive Training Center on Crenshaw Boulevard; hosting his friend Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who held his first post-victory press conference at that same center, a partnership between the league and Toyota that resulted from the riots.

Now 68, a star player in myriad powerful arenas, Mack is scheduled to retire as president of the Los Angeles Urban League at the end of this month, causing a seismic shift in Southern California's African American leadership.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Urban League -- A photo caption in Monday's Calendar section with an article about John Mack's retirement as president of the Los Angeles Urban League misidentified Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, as Mack's son, Tony Mack.

No black leader outside the realm of politics has his insider relationships with the region's corporate movers and shakers or elite African Americans, liberal and conservative (it was a black Republican who recommended to the White House that Mack escort the first President Bush around L.A. after the riots). During his nearly 36 years in the position, he has seen the city through all kind of changes: the election of a black mayor, growth in the number of African Americans in key and influential positions, the renaissance of the Crenshaw district, development in South L.A., a burgeoning black-Latino political coalition -- as well as escalating tensions between Latinos and African Americans over jobs and at schools, and even for gang turf.

As he prepares to leave the L.A. affiliate of one of the nation's oldest and most influential civil rights organizations, he cautions that "African Americans live in two worlds. We have had a steadily growing middle class. Look at the African Americans who live in View Park, Baldwin Hills, Lafayette Square and Ladera Heights -- and others who have moved out.

"But for everyone who's moved up, we have more and more who are still languishing in poverty ... without hope, without opportunity."

Providing opportunity is the primary mission of the L.A. league, which serves 112,000 individuals annually -- the majority of them Latino now, reflecting L.A.'s changing demographics -- including preschoolers in Head Start programs, students and dropouts improving their skills and adults in need of training or help finding a job. And while its makeup has changed, the league's goal remains as current as ever: to provide equal opportunity, not just black opportunity.

The job also provides a bully pulpit. Mack frequently speaks out, though usually without the angry edge of some other black leaders. In some quarters, that makes Mack an Uncle Tom, a sellout. Critics point to his support for the opening of a Wal-Mart in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw mall to create jobs, despite the company's low, nonunion wages. They note that the league was paid to recruit workers.

His friend, the more outspoken Danny Bakewell, who heads the Brotherhood Crusade, sees a difference in style between the two. "My voice may have been more vocal and more challenging, and John may have a voice that resonated more with reason. I have a hard edge, anger.... John has a rounder edge, a softer edge."

"It's not as though John is incapable of expressing passion, which sometimes translates itself into anger. I saw him in one instance light Daryl Gates up," says Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), another close friend.

To be sure, Mack is a gentleman leader, one who never curses or shouts and always dresses in a suit and tie for public events and private meetings. His wife, Harriett Mack, recalls that he even wore a tie on the golf course in the first two years that sportscaster Jim Hill sponsored a benefit tournament for the league.

The National Urban League's urbane and well-integrated tradition of "quiet warriors" seems in no danger of shifting in L.A. in Mack's absence. No brick-throwers need apply, say other black leaders who embrace Mack's consensus- and bridge-building style.

He is comfortable with powerful whites -- like presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and both Bushes -- and they with him.

"I've never mau-maued anyone. It's possible to lead without being loud or threatening," Mack says in his paneled office at the L.A. league's elegant, ivy-covered headquarters on Mount Vernon Drive near Crenshaw Boulevard.

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