By Dorany Pineda
CRENSHAW –– Not long after John Wesley Mack was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998, he walked into the Los Angeles Urban League’s human resources office to relay the news to the department’s director.
His motive: “It’s important for the community to know about early detection,” Mack said, suggesting the league offer the community free prostate screenings.
Such selflessness and dedication to others were common themes during Mack’s funeral service July 10, as more than 2,000 people gathered at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ to celebrate his life and legacy and mourn his death.
Mack died June 21 at the age of 81, having lost his battle with cancer.
Dozens of people shared stories of the civil rights leader, including prominent city and political dignitaries like Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, new LAPD Chief Michel Moore and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Retired NBA player Earvin “Magic” Johnson also paid tribute to Mack, recalling the first time he met him at a dinner party where Mack spoke.
“I’ve never heard a more powerful and polished speaker and he got me really excited,” Johnson said. Over the years, as the two became closer, Mack became a trusted mentor and friend to the former basketball star.
“John was there to share every special moment of my life, but also the tough times, too,” Johnson recalled. “When I announced the HIV, he cried like a baby. I remember that like it was yesterday. But he was right there with me.”
For educator Rachel Day, Mack’s activism for equal education affected her the most.
“John meant education, he meant civil rights, he meant social justice, representing education in such a way that he allowed us to speak,” said Day, who worked at John W. Mack Elementary School. She said she often felt his positive presence in the hallways.
Beck, speaking softly, said his heart was ripped by Mack’s death, but that knowing him felt like touching greatness.
“When I think of John, I will always think of him as the hammer of justice and a man who could use that hammer to rebuild from the ground,” he said. “I am just so honored to be part of this incredible group that’s recognizing John and I cannot thank him enough for what he has done for my beloved Los Angeles Police Department.”
In 2005, Villaraigosa named Mack president of the Board of Police Commissioners of the LAPD. Mack, who over the years showed no qualms about speaking truth to power, fought unyieldingly to change the culture of policing in the city.
But when Villaraigosa nominated Mack, he was hesitant to accept the position. Mack was recently retired from the Urban League and understood the time commitment the job would require.
Eventually he said yes and went on to serve on the Police Commission for eight years, “ushering a golden age of community and constitutional policing,” Villaraigosa said.
He accepted the role not because he sought recognition, but because he wanted to serve others.
“John Mack was a drum major for justice, for truth and for righteousness,” Villaraigosa said. “Farewell, my brother. You will be missed.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti said Mack helped establish and unite the city.
“This nation of Los Angeles has been built by many people,” he said. “This is one of our founding fathers. … Racial justice, economic opportunity, procedural equity for all people — how do you feel that? How do you build it? This man was a great carpenter. This man was a great builder of Los Angeles and is one of the founding fathers of the new Los Angeles.
“Now it is up to us to make sure that we keep walking together,” the mayor said.
During his 36-year tenure as president of the L.A. Urban League, Mack advocated for the employment, education and economic development of African Americans. Under his command, the league became one of the nation’s most successful nonprofits, generating an annual budget of $25 million.
A mourner who identified himself as a veteran said he was grateful for Mack’s work in helping rebuild the city after the 1992 Rodney King riots and for the community training offered by the league. “That’s what I remember about him and that’s why I care so much about him and the things that he did for us black people.”
As much of a public figure as Mack was, he also was a private person and an amazing father, said his son, Anthony. “For anyone that knew him … you know that he took very seriously and passionately his relationship with his family … and then with his Los Angeles city family.”
During his speech, Mack’s son pointed to a childhood friend who drove five hours that morning to attend his father’s funeral service.
“My friend here said, ‘Listen, Mack. … Your father, as a young man growing up in a household without a father figure, I never told this to you, but your dad was the father to me I never had,’” he recalled.
Mack is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Anthony and Teresa; daughters Deborah and Andria; grandchildren Anthony II, Gabriel and Gianna; sister Ruth Gray; and other extended family.