“Integrated into a Burning House?”: A Pre-Inauguration Conversation with Rev. Cecil Murray

Courtesy of CRCC

If you met Cecil “Chip” Murray without knowing anything about him, you’d still get immediately that you were in the presence of a real preacher man. The mellifluous cadence with which he speaks, the way he can’t help but gesticulate excitedly with his hands—this is someone in that most serious business of saving souls.

Though he’s now been retired from First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city’s oldest AME church, for about 13 years, he hasn’t lost this ability to make strangers suddenly rapt with attention. It’s a gift that served him and FAME well during his 27 years as pastor. He shot to national prominence during the 1992 race riots when he worked with then-mayor Tom Bradley to calm frightened residents and provide shelter to families displaced by the fires. As the city burned, he inspired congregants to act as a human shield between rioters and firefighters attempting to quell the blaze.

Now on the cusp of Donald Trump’s inauguration, we find ourselves at another tipping point, with many African-Americans asking themselves the same question James Baldwin did in 1962: Do we really “want to be integrated into a burning house?”

I met with Rev. Cecil Murray, now a senior fellow at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, to discuss how the black church’s past might inform its future in this new era.

First AME Church, Los Angeles, 1872

First AME Church, Los Angeles, 1872

Anita Little: How is the black church community in Los Angeles reacting to our incoming president, and how will the black church be moving forward?

Rev. Cecil Murray: I can’t be sure because no one of us can speak for all of us. One thing many of us agreed on was that he was elected by a closet crowd. These are the same states that pretended they were for integration. They hide their true sympathies, but then when such a person as Donald Trump comes along and they have a champion, they expose themselves. When you saw the numbers following the election, the red states were like blood on the maps.

He wants America to become powerful again. I couldn’t understand that thinking because at this tick of the watch, America is the most powerful, richest nation in the history of the world. What do you mean become powerful again? He means empowering the white elite.

A good portion of his platform is erasing the achievements of the Obama presidency and wiping out the programs that Obama brought to our nation. His director of strategic planning is an avowed racist and de facto president of the white nationalist movement. Trump also nominated Jeff Sessions for his attorney general, someone who is an opponent of mass incarceration reforms despite America leading the world in prison construction and prison confinement. On top of that, the person he wants in charge of the Department of Justice has a reputation as being a racist and anti-integration.

Trump was elected by a legacy. We decided 250 years ago we wanted to be a democracy, but from day one, we’ve had challenges with racism and genocide. The first five presidents owned slaves. Our country went through different stages of slavery, first by chains, then by law and finally by custom. Our bloodied history isn’t dead, and we are not “post” anything. More people are realizing that with our new president-elect—someone who has questioned women’s rights, LGBT rights, minority rights and immigration rights.

We move forward by doubling down on our grassroots efforts to change local policies, namely police and prison reform. The police are given power, but it must be used to protect and defend all people. They can’t just have unbridled power. We arm you. We equip you. We pay you. But you shoot us down when we are 10 percent of the population.Who will protect us from our protectors? Who will defend us from our defenders?

We must make very certain that we insist on human rights training for police. We must insist that the community is respected by the police, and the police are respected by the community. We must make certain that enrollment includes blacks, Asians, Latinos and that all marginalized groups are represented in their ranks.

Do you feel that social justice activism within the black church will change in the next four years? Do you feel that people will become more engaged with Trump as president?

It will strengthen our engagement because civil rights was founded in the black church. It didn’t always stay there, but that’s where it was born. The black church can only justify its existence by fairness, equity and fighting for the black struggle.

The first black revolution of a great degree in America was led by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black denomination in America. He was a former slave who purchased his own freedom. Allen started the first nonviolent protests of church segregation after a Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia would not allow him and other slaves to worship with white congregants. That’s what the black church has always been and should strive to be, a place of inclusion and justice for all people.

Even before Trump’s election, there seemed to be an adversarial relationship between black church elders and younger Black Lives Matter activists. How will a Trump presidency affect that relationship?

In American churches generally, there’s a 60 percent dropout rate, and the hardest group to recruit in American churches are the millennials.  The black church is not immune and is also struggling to recruit millennials—specifically millennial black males—into the church. Regardless of whether Trump won or not, the black church was going to have to reinvent itself or fade out because young people have other things to do on Sunday morning. This rebirth is going to be difficult sailing, but we have no option.

How will Trump’s ascendency affect the relationship between the black church and white mainline Protestants who may not have supported Trump on the same scale as evangelicals, but still have far to go in achieving racial inclusion?

We were strengthened in the late ’60s in our churches when white Protestant churches began to walk with us and talk with us. The National Council of Churches apologized for its participation in discrimination, and it was important for them to reconcile with the black church. The Southern Baptists are the only predominantly white organization that hasn’t apologized yet, but they have loosen up a little bit. We could find unity between the black and the non-black faith-based system, but it will depend upon the whites. The burden is not on us.

With inauguration happening tomorrow, there seems to be a range of reactions in the black community. I’m noticing among younger African Americans that it seems to be mostly anger with many saying that this is a time for Malcolm, not for Martin. How would you comment on this?

Yes, the mentality of Malcolm is understandable for younger people. But I think if I have learned anything from the civil rights struggle, it is nonviolent resistance. As shown with the election of Trump, there will always be a percentage of our population that will be racist. There will always be that closet group. However as a democracy, we aim at liberty and justice for all people, and it’s time to put white racists, white conservatives, even some white liberals, on trial. We must stand up together rather than let a conservative element destroy 250 years of labor. That’s where we are right now, and it’s where we must be.