By Dennis J. Freeman
LOS ANGELES — John Wesley Mack didn’t back down from injustice. Instead, Mack, who died June 21 at the age of 81, chose to stare down discrimination, racism and systemic bigotry.
“A giant oak has fallen in every respect,” said Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. “John W. Mack was a giant of a man, father, grandfather, Urban Leaguer and civil rights leader.
“His mark on not only Los Angeles, but the nation, was nothing short of extraordinary. I am deeply saddened because I have lost a mentor, friend and colleague. The Urban League movement joins in mourning this tremendous loss.”
Mack led the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League for 36 years until he retired in 2005. He stepped down from the Urban League post to become president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
He also formed the Commission on Appeal for Human Rights, a group that included respected civil rights figures such as Julian Bond and Marion Wright Edelman, and often stood in the trenches for equality, fighting against housing discrimination, economic suppression and racial injustice.
“John Mack’s wisdom, integrity, and kindness helped transform Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “As a civil rights warrior, police commission president, and ally to all who love freedom and fairness, John made history with a fierce determination to pursue justice, an unshakable commitment to equality, and an unbreakable bond with the community he worked tirelessly to uplift every day of his remarkable life. He moved both spirits and systems — by merging his gentle bearing with a fearless resolve to make change that has touched and saved countless lives.”
That was Mack’s life’s mission, from the time he ran the student chapter of the NAACP at North Carolina AT&T to his extended tenure as president of the Los Angeles Urban League, Mack was known in Los Angeles and the rest of the country as a justice-seeking crusader.
“John Mack always led from the front and as leader of the Los Angeles Urban League, Mack was at the forefront for decades in fighting for economic and civil rights for the African-American community, not just locally but also nationally,” said Najee Ali, CEO of Project Islamic Hope. “Mr. Mack embraced and helped develop young civil rights activists. We fought side by side under his leadership to make Los Angeles a better city for all.”
Funeral services will be held July 10 on the north campus of West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers showed his respect for Mack, saying that the civil rights leader “changed so many lives in Los Angeles. He truly delivered on the Urban League mission to provide job training, employment opportunities and education for our youth in order to empower the black community,” Johnson said.
“Thank you, John Mack, for changing my life. May you rest in peace.”
The Los Angeles Urban league also paid tribute to its former leader.
“The passing of John W. Mack is an immeasurable loss for the city of Los Angeles,” said Michael Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League. “John W. Mack served the Los Angeles Urban League for 35 years with passion, tenacity and a commitment to advance the civil rights of people of color, and more specifically, African Americans. There was truly no one like him.
“When anything was going on in this city, John was there and wherever John was, there was the Los Angeles Urban League. I am deeply saddened today, but take great pride in continuing his legacy through our work at the league. Our prayers are with his family and may his soul rest in peace.”
“For nearly 40 years, John Wesley Mack and I were friends, confidants and collaborators,” county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “He burnished a distinguished legacy of public service, fathering not one but two generations of civic leaders. Ever the idealist and visionary, he refused to let institutional racism, police misconduct, interethnic strife and the challenges of metropolitan politics impede his quest for civil rights, justice and progress.
“His work bettered the lives of so many people in Los Angeles and beyond. As I offer my deepest condolences to his children and grandchildren, I pledge to continue his legacy through committed, inclusive and principled leadership and service.”
In the aftermath of the 1992 Riots, Mack and a contingent of black leaders led then President George H.W. Bush on a tour of South Los Angeles to survey the most ravaged areas. Out of the riots came Rebuild LA, which was supposed to generate rebuilding and restructuring of businesses in South Los Angeles.
As he recalled in an interview with NPR last year, after the excitement of the project when it was launched, Mack said those in charge didn’t get the whole picture in how to make things work for the betterment of the community.
“Once I got over my anger behind the gang beating, you know, I was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic that maybe we can get some things done,” Mack said.
That would change when Rebuild LA and its expected revitalization of South Los Angeles never really materialized.
“Some promises were made,” Mack would later add during the NPR interview. “You know, press conferences were held. The Vons supermarket, leadership at the time, made a pledge that they were going to build 10 or 12 supermarkets strategically throughout the community. One was built.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who founded the Community Coalition, a grassroots political and social economic organization in South Los Angeles, was effusive in her praise of Mack.
“There was perhaps no bigger leader in the fight for civil rights in Los Angeles than John,” Bass said. “John was a calming and unifying leader when our city needed it most. In his role as president of the Los Angeles Urban League and throughout his service to our city, John played an integral role in leading the movement for improving police community relations, creating fair employment opportunities, and establishing equal access to education.
“John was also a mentor,” Bass said. “He provided me counsel since before the founding of Community Coalition, his guidance never wavering and always true. I will always be grateful for his advice throughout my time in both Sacramento and Washington. But it wasn’t just me that John helped.
“His mentorship transcended generations of leaders and activists in our city. His assistance helped shape a new generation of black and brown leaders in Los Angeles committed to fighting for ideals he held dear.”
Outgoing LAPD Chief Charlie Beck also hailed Mack, saying the city “lost a dedicated public servant.”
“Former Police Commission President John Mack was instrumental in guiding the LAPD towards community-based 21st century policing. Our department and our city are in a better place because of John’s legacy,” Beck added.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson called Mack “a civil rights giant and freedom fighter.”
“Prayers for and condolences to the family of John Mack and the city of Los Angeles for which he worked so hard to make fair and just for all of its residents,” Jackson said.
Mack received awards from numerous institutions, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Operation Hope, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the California Afro American Museum.