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John Mack, LA's 'Dean Of Civil Rights,' Is Dead

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John Mack, left, at a police commission meeting. (Frank Stoltze / KPCC)

His empathy was as deep as his intelligence," civil rights attorney Connie Rice said of John Mack, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and one-time leader of the L.A. chapter of the Urban League. Mack died Thursday night at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, according to friends. He was 81.

Friends say Mack had been sick with an unknown illness for several months, though his family had kept it quiet. Mack's family has not released a cause of death.

"When he missed the Urban League dinner last month, we knew it was serious," said political consultant Kerman Maddox.

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John Mack in 2003. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Mack was president of the Urban League in L.A. from 1969 to 2005. He had long been a sharp critic of the LAPD when then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed him to the commission that oversees the department in 2005. Mack served on the panel until 2013.

"From the outside, you can only stop the extreme stuff like brutality," said Rice, who herself went from an attorney who regularly sued the LAPD to working inside the department to affect change.

"But courts can't order how you think - that's hearts and mind work," she said. "And that's where John Mack was a genius."

"John could use sharp words in a soft way because of his sincerity," said the police commission's current president Steve Soboroff. Mack fought to change policing in L.A. "with grace and warmth," he said.

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"I would turn to him all the time for advice," said Soboroff. "He was very calming."

Maddox said when he was a young activist he worked with Mack and others to bring an end to the LAPD's infamous chokehold policy after it resulted in a series of deaths of African Americans.

Maddox remembers attending early morning breakfasts organized by Mack in the early 1980's. "It was a who's who of leaders in the community," he said.

Mack was a strategic thinker, said Maddox. In the mid-1980's Maddox and others were calling for the resignation of then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and criticizing Mayor Tom Bradley for not doing more to get rid of the controversial figure.

"John pulled some of us aside and said, 'Hey, you need to look at the bigger picture,'" Maddox said. Mack explained Bradley appointed the police commission.

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"And that's our route to get rid of Gates," Maddox recalls Mack telling activists. "Don't mess that up."

During his tenure as president, Mack transformed the Urban League from an organization focused almost exclusively on bringing jobs to inner city African Americans to one that also was a forceful voice for social justice.

"He was one of the last civil rights legends in LA," said Maddox.

Mack was awarded the National Urban League's Legend of the Century Honoree and the Thurgood Marshall Fund's Thurgood Marshall Award.

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When Mack retired as head of the L.A. Urban League chapter in 2005, the city honored him by celebrating "John Mack Day."

Mack's "wisdom, integrity, and kindness helped transform Los Angeles," Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. "As a civil rights warrior, police commission president, and ally to all who love freedom and fairness, John made history with a fierce determination to pursue justice, an unshakable commitment to equality, and an unbreakable bond with the community he worked tirelessly to uplift every day of his remarkable life."

Garcetti added: "I will always miss John as a friend, advisor, and moral compass. And like many throughout our city and world, I will forever find inspiration in his extraordinary ability to convene us around tables of understanding, humanity, and peace -- especially in uncertain moments and at times of great strife."

In a joint statement, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Police Chief-Select Michel Moore said Mack "was not only an outstanding commissioner, but an inspiration and personal mentor for thousands of police officers throughout the decades of his service to the community. His thoughtfulness, kindness, grace, and leadership have been instrumental in shaping the LAPD of today."

When Mack was appointed to the Cal Tech board of trustees in 2004, the school said in a statement that he "stands out as a dynamic force in shaping the social, economic, and political landscape of Los Angeles."

"Mack's work in building productive partnerships has been pervasive throughout corporate America, small business, government, and communities, making him one of the most influential leaders in the country," it said.

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