Civil rights leader and political kingmaker Hamel Hartford Brookins, who died May 22 at age 86, was even more influential away from the pulpit than he was behind it. He was an early driving force behind the rise of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and three other of the city’s most important African American political leaders–former City Councilman and Superior Court Judge Billy G. Mills, former Congresswoman and County Supervisor Yvonne Burke and the late City Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay.
“Bishop Brookins marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South; helped start the political career of Tom Bradley, a five-term Los Angeles mayor; was a principal strategist in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign; and in 1990 prayed with Mayor Marion Barry of Washington when Mr. Barry was convicted of drug possession,” said the New York Times in its obituary on Brookins.
But the New York Times also noted that his career was “clouded by accusations of financial chicanery.”
Though an important part of First AME’s outstanding history, Brookins was perhaps the most controversial pastor ever at the church, where he served from 1959-1972 and as bishop of the denomination’s Los Angeles region from 1976-1984. First AME is the oldest African American church in the city, having been co-founded in 1872 by Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a Georgia-born slave brought west by her owner. In 1856, Mason and her three daughters were given their freedom in a U.S. Supreme Court case. Through nursing and midwifery, she became a prominent businesswoman, landowner and philanthropist in the post-Civil War days of Los Angeles.
The church, which was eventually established at Eighth and Towne, burned down in 1972, and the congregation moved to its present location at 2270 S. Harvard Blvd. shortly thereafter.
Renowned architect Paul Williams designed the church in 1963, and it has been a cornerstone of the civil rights struggle virtually since it opened.
Brookins arrived at the church in 1965 and quickly rose to the forefront of the Los Angeles civil rights movement as the first president of the United Civil Rights Council. After the Watts riots that August, Brookins became a key spokesman for the Black community, testifying before city, county, state and national committees examining the unrest and its causes. Along the way Brookins and First AME Church established numerous faith-based ministries such as pre-school, employment centers, food pantries, marriage counseling, alcohol and drug prevention, young adult ministries and even Yoga meditation.
In the 1960s, it was not uncommon for the Black clergy nationwide to advocate on behalf of civil rights and political power. Brookins was credited with molding the careers of the aforementioned Black officials, as well as those of a number of African American ministers who later would head major Los Angeles churches, including Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray (now retired), the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ and the late Dr. E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in South L.A.– all hugely prominent pastors.
By the dawn of the 1960s, Black electoral majorities in three districts resulted in the election of Lindsay, Mills and Bradley to the City Council, joining Augustus “Gus” Hawkins and Mervyn Dymally in the state senate to form arguably the most powerful concentration of Black elected officials in the nation. In 1962, residents of primarily Black South Los Angeles (extending roughly from just south of downtown to Watts, and west from Alameda Street to Western Avenue) had no Council representative.
Brookins was instrumental in launching a petition drive, gathering a consortium of Black clergy, among them Hill, the Rev. Timothy Chambers Sr. (Zion Hill Baptist Church) and the Rev. Thomas Kilgore (Second Baptist Church), urging Mayor Sam Yorty, County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to carve out the 9th Council District and make Lindsay the city’s first African American Council member–a position he held for 28 years.
Bradley represented the 10th Council District in the 1960s and, in 1968, tried unsuccessfully to unseat Yorty. By virtue of Brookins’ powerful connections and persistence in improving the stature of Black Angelenos, Bradley was elected mayor in 1972 and served five extraordinary terms. Some community leaders–Black and White–were at first reluctant to back Bradley in his first Council race, with Brookins recalling how quickly the former mayor was able to sway their votes: “He went from zero to hero,” Brookins quipped. “He opened the door and it will not be closed again. We went from the back of the bus to the front of the bus, and we aren’t going back. Now, we’re buying the bus company.”
Mills, who represented the 8th Council District, was one of the city’s most influential politicians and legal statesmen. In 1966, Mills became the first Black chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic County Central Committee–defeating Bradley for that post. Immediately following the 1965 Watts Riots, Mills and Brookins organized a meeting of community and “indigenous” leaders–in the Council chambers–to hear comments from anyone connected with the disturbances so city officials could begin “getting at the causes of the riots,” Mills said. On the recommendation of Brookins and the Black caucus in the California Legislature, Gov. Ronald Reagan in April 1974 appointed Mills to the Superior Court bench.
“H.H. Brookins was part of the leadership that moved us from the eastside, and the 9th District, and Eighth and Towne to Sugar Hill,” said former Councilman Robert Farrell. “It exemplified the westward movement of Blacks in Los Angeles.”
“His greatest strength was that of a mobilizer . . .” said Murray of Brookins. “He was able to bring pastors together and politicians together, and he was able to bring pastors and politicians together (with each other); and, with faith-based systems, he was able to bring denominations together.”
Murray pastored First AME in Seattle, while Brookins served as bishop of the region. He would eventually go on to take over the church Brookins helped grow.
Religious leaders are never on the same page, continued Murray, who said putting together a consensus among members of the clergy was much like herding cats.
“He was very good at herding.”
Murray added that Brookins popularized the local custom of politicians and others coming to the churches on Sundays to speak to congregations. “This was a way to keep them accountable,” he said, something that the former First AME pastor said is sadly lacking today.
First AME Church remains a center of political and social action, which state and national political candidates often find important to visit during election season. The congregation has traditionally been composed of the more affluent African American–from middle- and upper-middle class, and its outreach to all of Black Los Angeles remains as vibrant and meaningful.