Gentleman warrior

Urban League's John Mack leaves a daunting civil rights legacy.

By Gayle Pollard-Terry, Times Staff Writer

[b][color=indigo]Heads turn and murmuring begins when the distinguished, silver-haired African American walks through Harold and Belle's, a popular Creole restaurant in southwest Los Angeles.

A professor looks up from her shrimp and crawfish étouffée. Genteel little old ladies dressed to the nines for lunch grab at his hands. Diners approach his table before he can savor the shrimp, crab, smoked beef sausage, ham and chicken thickening his filé gumbo.

"Isn't that John Mack from the Urban League?" a diner asks. "I know him from TV."

They know him from images like these: famously leading then-President George H. W. Bush on a tour after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a photo-op seen round the world; calling for the resignation of then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates; showing Prince Charles the Los Angeles Urban League Automotive Training Center on Crenshaw Boulevard; hosting his friend Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who held his first post-victory press conference at that same center, a partnership between the league and Toyota that resulted from the riots.

Now 68, a star player in myriad powerful arenas, Mack is scheduled to retire as president of the Los Angeles Urban League at the end of this month, causing a seismic shift in Southern California's African American leadership.

No black leader outside the realm of politics has his insider relationships with the region's corporate movers and shakers or elite African Americans, liberal and conservative (it was a black Republican who recommended to the White House that Mack escort the first President Bush around L.A. after the riots). During his nearly 36 years in the position, he has seen the city through all kind of changes: the election of a black mayor, growth in the number of African Americans in key and influential positions, the renaissance of the Crenshaw district, development in South L.A., a burgeoning black-Latino political coalition â€