16 minute read

Cecil Murray Biography

Pledged Oath with Father, Found Calling, Studied Theology, Struggled to Improve Life in Los Angeles


Religious leader

The Rev. Cecil (Chip) Murray is the religious leader every spiritually-conscious person would like to follow. A man of exceptional integrity, he heads a church whose congregants have included Dionne Warwick and Arsenio Hall, a church supported by an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, which is nevertheless a church that takes loving care of the less fortunate in Los Angeles' inner-city black community. He is a tireless campaigner for jobs and training programs, never turns anyone in need away from his door, and somehow has also found the time to spearhead the construction of low-income housing projects, start drug rehabilitation programs, and organize funds for college scholarships. He is a truly focused man, whose life is his work, and whose work is his life.

Born on September 26, 1929, Chip Murray grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida, the second of three children. The family lost their mother when they were very young and were sent to stay with relatives for a short time. But their father remarried and brought them back to their home, where their stepmother gave them the loving support they needed to ease their way to adulthood.

Pledged Oath with Father

The principal of the school his son Chip attended, Edward Murray was commonly known as "Prof." He was a powerful influence upon his children, teaching them by personal example to practice what they preached. What Prof Murray preached was never to knuckle down to racism, a lesson that was painfully slammed home one night when he and his two sons confronted three white bigots who had been bullying indigent blacks on their way to collect government-issue food. Edward Murray tried to reason with the whites, but met only flying fists and curses. After the fight was over, he took some blood from one of his cuts and sealed a blood oath with each of his two sons, to make them swear to love and protect their fellow blacks.

"I guess my dad was about the most fearless person I knew," Reverend Murray told the Los Angeles Times in August, 1992: "I'm sure he must have felt the fear, so he must have gone on in spite of it." Go on Prof Murray did, but the pain and fear of that night were so overwhelming that he began to turn to alcohol in order to dull them. Insidiously the bottle began to claim him, until it finally broke up his second marriage. Alcohol-sodden, he died in 1952 at just 52 years of age, leaving behind nothing for his son Chip but the memory of the oath to protect black people from racism and to help them in any way possible.

For seven years, this promise lay fallow in Cecil Murray's mind. He had chosen to enter the Air Force after his 1951 graduation from Florida A&M University, and the demands of his first post as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Force's Air Defense Command left him little time for public service of any kind. He was just as busy after he moved on to the post of navigator in the Air Transport Service, but the essence of his father's blood oath was brought forcibly back into his memory when tragedy stalked into his life for the second time.

Found Calling

Catastrophe announced itself with an explosion in the nose tank of a jet in which he was flying, just as it was lifting up from a runway. Within moments, escaping jet fuel covered the plane in a seething mass of flames. Moving swiftly, Murray managed to hurl himself free. Then, when his own danger had passed, he saw to his horror that the pilot had not been as lucky. He had managed to climb out of the cockpit, but he had then slipped in the burning oil pouring along the wing, and his body was being consumed by the blaze. Murray ran to help, smothering the blaze as best he could. Nevertheless the flames burned 90 percent of the pilot's body, leaving injuries too great for him to overcome. The pilot died a few weeks later, leaving a legacy that Murray treasured far more than the medal he won for his valor. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Ilove you," were his last words to his brave fellow crewmember—an accolade indeed from a white man born in South Carolina.

Fulfilling at least the "help your fellows" part of Murray's father's request, this incident proved to be a turning point. He continued to enjoy flying for a further three years, but his sights were no longer set on the Air Force as a long-term career. Recognizing that his true mission in life was to help his fellow blacks, and that the most powerful way of doing this was via the pulpit, he began to think of entering the ministry serving the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) was originally part of the Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1784 in Philadelphia. Its own history as an institution began to crystallize shortly after the supposedly multiracial St George's Church built a gallery, to which black worshippers were banished. They resented being sidelined, but made no official protest until one Sunday in November 1787, when a group of white congregants tried to pull several of them away from the altar rail. The furious group of black worshippers was led from the church by a former slave named Richard Allen, who happened also to be a licensed Methodist preacher. Allen, a prosperous business man, immediately started an African-American-oriented church, and bought an abandoned blacksmith's shop in which to base it.

Studied Theology

Despite their separation by 150 years, there was no denying that FAME's origins and Prof. Murray's blood oath had sprung from the same struggle against racism. Chip Murray felt strongly that destiny was beckoning. Without further delay he entered the School of Theology at Claremont and found himself a part-time janitor's job in order to support himself while his wife added to this slender income by working as a clerk at the school.

In 1964 Murray graduated with a doctorate in religion. His first post was in Pomona, in a church too tiny even to boast plumbing. Next came a transfer to a larger church in Kansas City, after which Murray was transferred to Seattle, Washington, where he settled for a six-year stay that saw his congregation soar to reach 2,000 members.

At a Glance …

Born on September 26, 1929, in Lakeland, FL; son of Edward W. and Minnie Lee Murray; married Bernadine Cousin, 1958; children: Drew David. Education: Florida A & M University, BA, 1951; School of Theology at Claremont, Doctor of Religion, 1964. Military Service: US Air Force, captain, Jet Raider interceptor and navigator; US Air Force Reserves, 1951-61.

Career: First African Methodist Episcopal Church, minister; religious posts in Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas City, and Pomona, 1977–.

Memberships: African Methodist Episcopal Church, general board, 1972-92; National Council of Churches, general board, 1972-92; NAACP; SCLC; Urban League; United Nations Association of the USA; National Council on Aging, general board, 1988-93;.

Awards: Soldiers' Medal for Heroism, 1958; William Nelson Cromwell Award, 1977; Ralph Bunche Peace Prize, 1992; AME Church Daniel Alexander Payne Award, 1992; NAACP, Los Angeles Community Achievement Award, 1986; National Association of University Women, Outstanding Role Model, 1992.

Addresses: Office—Senior Minister, First AME Church, 2270 S Harvard Blvd, Los Angeles, California, 90018.

In 1977 Reverend Murray was transferred again, this time to Los Angeles. On the surface this seemed an extremely challenging assignment, since it involved a debt-ridden church with only 300 elderly congregants, but it was not long before the Herculean task of giving the church an inviting, black-oriented identity was well under way. As a first step Murray added a liberal helping of gospel flavor to the music, which now featured drums, cymbals, and other percussion to give it a throbbing beat. Next, in order to attract young black men who could go out into the poverty-stricken inner-city community, he honored the church's founding father by starting the Richard Allen Men's Society. Today this association is involved in the nationwide fight against drugs, and is also active in mentoring fatherless children.

Struggled to Improve Life
in Los Angeles

By 1990 a wide variety of activities to improve the lives of poor black Americans was making Reverend Cecil Murray's name a familiar one outside the world of the church. His style was forthright, his candid comments frequently discomforting. Unperturbed by the embarrassed sniggers of self-righteous congregants, he did not hesitate to hand out AIDS-awareness kits containing condoms whenever he found it necessary. With blistering scorn he criticized the "Just Say No," slogan suggested by the Reagan White House as an antidote to drug use; he even took great care, in a Los Angeles Times article in March, 1990, to list some of the tragic social and economic consequences of such ineffectual White House equivocation.

In August 1990 Los Angeles Times readers felt the lash of Murray's uncompromising honesty again. His subject this time was the bitter relationship between black Californians and the 267,000-strong Korean community—a subject that was common knowledge. But the problem had seldom been treated to the media spotlight, and Murray now felt it was time to correct this deficiency. He chose to do so in an article called "Body Language Stokes the Anger," using as a painful example the contempt he found in Korean retailers in their day-to-day dealings with black customers.

As always, he did not content himself with a mere outline of the situation. Instead, he proposed a crisply-worded three-point plan for improving this obviously acrimonious relationship. First, he noted, it was vital that the two communities get together and talk, so they could understand each other's viewpoints. His next suggestion was that the Korean merchants hire some black workers, so that potential customers from the black community would be comfortable shopping in their stores. His third recommendation, the most daring one of all, proposed that the Koreans sponsor some scholarships for black youth and some workshops for budding black entrepreneurs. Murray's article was thoughtful and boldly forthright, but it did not bring a break in the cloud of bigotry. Sadly, it proved to be prophetic of further suffering to come.

Stepped into the Middle of the Racial Tensions

The storm broke in early 1991, when a high school student named Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by a Korean storekeeper after an argument involving a carton of orange juice. This tragic, needless death was neither the first nor the last in the blood-spattered list that would claim the lives of 13 Korean storekeepers before another year had passed. But for inner-city Los Angeles blacks, the teenager's murder was a special symbol; the epitome of an unconcerned government, an ever-dwindling supply of jobs and a powerlessness that they were no longer prepared to endure. Latasha Harlins' death was the tinder of a long-smoldering black rage that would shortly burst forth across Los Angeles.

The detonator to the definitive explosion was set just after midnight on March 3, 1991, when four white police officers forced a speeding Hyundai to a stop on the Los Angeles freeway. They handcuffed and arrested two of the three black men traveling in the car, but found the driver, Rodney King, much more intimidating because of his hefty build and 6 feet 3-inch stature. So they hit King with two Taser darts, each carrying 50,000 volts of electricity, and followed up with 56 blows to his body. Then, as far as they were concerned, the literally long-arm-of-the-law had triumphed again.

At the time the case seemed a simple one. However, the following day it took a complicated turn after amateur photographer George Holliday produced a videotape he had made of King's brutal beating. Disciplinary Police Department action was taken against the police officers, but a horrified America demanded some public legal action. On March 3, 1992, this demand was met. After the proceedings were moved from seething Los Angeles to a county that was more friendly to the police, the televised trial of the four white officers began. It came to an end on April 29, 1992, with a verdict of "not guilty."

Inspired Peace during Riots

If the Los Angeles Police Department had imagined that their troubles were now over, they were destined for disappointment. About two hours after the verdict was announced, a liquor store in South Central Los Angeles called for police help in settling a disturbance. Four patrol cars arrived to find a swelling crowd of bystanders, who soon started throwing rocks and shouting at the police. It took just one hour for Los Angeles to start writhing in the grip of a full-blown race riot; within a day, television newscasts showed gut-wrenching footage of beatings, showers of broken glass, and laden looters staggering triumphantly through the charred wreckage of once-flourishing businesses.

On the first night of the disturbance, Rev. Murray and 5,000 of his 8,500 parishioners were praying together for peace. One-half a block away, a fire was burning, as he later said, "like Dante's Inferno," yet the firemen would not come to help unless they were guaranteed protection. Rev. Murray did not hesitate. For three hours, he and 100 other men stood between the rioters and the firemen, acting as a human shield.

An uncompromising realist, he had anticipated trouble on the very night the King verdict was announced. As reported by the Los Angeles Times of May 3, 1992, his message now to his flock must have come over loud and clear: "Under no circumstances will we pretend that the looting, the burning, and the arson are excusable. And in the same breath that we say that, we must say that this miscegenation of justice in the court-room…was injurious to us all." (The entire country agreed with him. Such vociferous protests resulted from this verdict that the four policemen were retried in a Federal courtroom, and two of them were found guilty and punished for their brutal beating of Rodney King.)

The Federal trial, however, was stillin the future. The immediate problem now was to stem the fury that was destroying Los Angeles. Meeting the crisis took about a week, plus 2,000 National Guardsmen, 1,000 federal officers, and 4,500 military troops mobilized by President George Bush. When the city lay in an uneasy calm again, there was time to count the unnecessary injuries, the wasted opportunities, and the ruined businesses. For everyone, the toll for the long-simmering lack of communication between the black and white citizens of Los Angeles was high–Police Department figures showed 52 dead, 20,000 jobs lost, and $735 million in property damage.

While a mere seven days saw the end of the violence, the entire country understood that years would pass before Los Angeles' deeply-rooted scars truly began to heal. For Reverend Murray, the message of difficult recuperation came as an ominous personal warning, delivered to him while the city was still in flames. It happened on the second night of the riot, just after television journalist Ted Koppel had finished taping his show at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Murray and a couple of companions were walking through the parking lot when several gang members suddenly stepped into their path. Menacing shouts of "You sellout!" followed Murray to his car, but he was unconcerned about the threat to his personal safety. His companions, however, viewed the incident quite differently.

Endured Threats to Build Strong Congregation

Their anxiety was quite justified, for this was not the first alarming episode Murray had experienced. For two years before the riots both he himself and the church had been the targets of a steady stream of hate mail, which had swelled to a river in mid-1991 after church members had launched a petition calling for the resignation of Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates. Now the city's turmoil had brought out the true intention of these vicious attacks—to assassinate Rev. Murray and burn down the church, in order to start a full-blown race war between America's black and white citizens.

On June 20, 1993 Rev. Murray received a call from Special Agent Parsons of the FBI. Parsons warned him that his life was in danger and told him that there were hate groups bent on destroying his church. Parsons also asked him to keep their conversation private, since the FBI was currently wrapping up an investigation of a number of white supremacist groups and was expecting to make several arrests. As promised, the FBI pounced on July 15, arresting members of the White Aryan Resistence, the Fourth Reich, and a relatively new group of Nazi sympathizers called the Fourth Reich Skinheads, whose ranks included a Continental Airlines flight engineer named Christian Nadal and his wife Doris.

The Sunday following the arrests found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church buzzing with more than 2,000 congregants at each of its three morning services. Each group found its pastor calm, unshaken, and secure in his long-time philosophy of conciliation and universal redemption. In its issue of August 2, 1993, widely-read People magazine quoted from the sermon Rev. Murray gave on that fateful Sunday: "Soul force is greater than sword force. In this lovely city we have 146 different nations. We've got to learn how to love together. There's enough room for everybody." Amen.

A decade later, Murray has continued his mission to nurture fellowship among Americans in Los Angeles and beyond. His efforts increased membership in his congregation to nearly 18,000. One of the cornerstones of his ministry has been to encourage blacks to see themselves in a positive light. He told the Christian Science Monitor that "Black communities across America are bombarded from every angle with a model of black life that is full of violence, drugs, and mayhem. It's time for blacks to become more savvy about how destructive these models are, and how to quit contributing to the problem." For his part, Murray conducts seminars and workshops in local churches to help parents and educators create positive examples for black children. Under his direction FAME organizes employment programs, financial aid and counseling for the poor, and youth programs. The massive size of his church is part of Murray's plan. He told Ebony that "You must think big. If you think big, you will have big returns. But we must go beyond worship and praise. We must help the homeless, heal the sick, find jobs, make loans and worry about the environment. Then the megachurch will endure into the next century."



Cohen, Jerry, and William S. Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965, E.P. Dutton, 1966.

Gooding-Williams, Robert, ed., Reading Urban Uprising, Routledge, 1993. Melton, J. Gordon, ed., Encyclopedia of American Religions, volume I, McGrath, 1978.

Wall, Brenda, The Rodney King Rebellion, African-American Images, 1992.


Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2000.

Chicago Tribune, February 16, 2003.

Ebony, December 2001.

Essence, November 1992, p. 56.

Humanist, November/December 1992, p. 11.

Los Angeles Sentinel, July 22, 1993.

Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1990; August 29, 1991; October 14, 1991, sec. B. p. 1; May 3, 1992, sec. M., p. 3; August 16, 1992, p. 12.

New York Times, September 13, 1992, Sec. 4, p. 7.

People, August 2, 1993, p. 82.

Time, July 26, 1993, p. 49.

U.S. News & World Report, May 18, 1993, p. 34.


"Celebrities Pack Heroes Gala at Paramount Lot," Black AIDS Institute, http://www.blackaids.org/kujisource/kuji0303/Heroes_gala.htm (August 18, 2004).

First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church, www.famechurch.org (August 18, 2004).

—Gillian Wolf and

Sara Pendergast

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