Religion

Revisiting a stirring sermon: ‘You Don’t Kick a Man When He’s Down’

Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood preached on the Sunday after police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King and riots erupted in Los Angeles

One afternoon when Johnny Ray Youngblood was 13 years old, a church prodigy who had recently received his preaching license, he watched a New Orleans police officer appear at the door of his family’s shotgun house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The cop was looking for Johnny Ray’s father, Palmon, a longtime worker at the vast Domino Sugar refinery along the Mississippi River. The cop held a warrant for the elder Youngblood’s arrest. The charge: an unpaid parking ticket.

As Johnny Ray’s mother Ottie May and a gathering of neighbors looked on impotently, Palmon miserably surrendered himself to be handcuffed and taken down to the Fifth Precinct lockup. Then Ottie May phoned the family’s minister and borrowed the money to pay the fine. When Palmon returned home, neither he nor anyone else in the family spoke of that day again.

Not until 30 years later, on March 7, 1991, did the image of his father Palmon’s degradation surge back to Johnny Ray Youngblood’s consciousness. By now, he was the Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, 5,000 members strong, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and he had built a national reputation in African American church circles for his ministry to black men.

On that day in 1991, Youngblood suddenly had reason to piercingly remember the arrest and humiliation of his father. The Los Angeles television station KTLA broadcast an amateur video that had been shot four nights earlier by a plumbing salesman named George Holliday, and the footage was quickly picked up by national newscasts. The grainy, black-and-white film captured 15 Los Angeles police officers battering, bludgeoning, kicking and using a stun gun on the prone figure of a black construction worker, Rodney King. He suffered a broken leg and lacerations to his face and was released from the hospital in a wheelchair. The ostensible reason for the beating was that King had led police on an eight-mile chase to avoid getting ticketed for speeding and driving under the influence.

In 1991, smartphones with built-in cameras didn’t exist. The kind of bulky, shoulder-held camcorder that Holliday used was a relatively new consumer product, and one favored by new parents for home movies of their kids. Even rarer and newer was what the Holliday video seemed to promise: unassailable, irrefutable evidence of police brutality.

A car burns as looters take to the streets at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues on April 29, 1992. This intersection is considered the flashpoint of the Los Angeles riots.

Steve Grayson/WireImage

There was nothing unique about having a visual record of atrocities against black people in America. Perversely, it was lynch mobs that routinely photographed the black people they had killed, often turning the ghastly images into souvenir postcards. Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, decided to reclaim visual power by allowing Jet magazine to publish an open-casket photograph of her 14-year-old son’s mutilated face in 1955. Yet it did not lead to any convictions in the case. The photo showed the result of a racist assault, not the act of it. But Holliday’s video of King’s beating did.

“When I saw it,” Youngblood recalled earlier this week, “it could have been any black man in my life personally. And I think I still saw myself in our front door watching my daddy be taken away, and I could not help him, and the neighbors could not help him. It’s like anything can happen.”

In most ways, Youngblood seemed a likely person to preach about the King case. He belonged to a generation of black ministers — including Jeremiah Wright, then of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (where he pastored then-Sen. Barack Obama), and Charles Adams, then of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit — who had absorbed the African American liberation theology formulated by James Cone. For them, Jesus as a figure and Christianity as a force were about divine support for the oppressed.

Youngblood was no stranger to a daring sermon. Starting a series of homilies about the Nativity in late 1989, he preached one called Christmas in the Raw, which positioned Mary as an unwed mother and Jesus as the sacred product of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. On Easter in 1990, he delivered Lazarus and the Black Man, an exegesis of resurrection in biblical Judea and modern Brooklyn that was practically a mission statement for his ministry to African American men.

But because Youngblood perceived the King case at that point to be a Los Angeles-centric controversy, and because he respected the right of black ministers there to address it, he held off from his own pulpit, not wanting to look like an interloper.

Rodney King publicly asked the city of Los Angeles, “Can’t we all get along?” during the 1992 riots.

Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the court case proceeded. The Los Angeles County district attorney indicted four officers on charges of assault and use of excessive force. But in June 1991, the presiding judge granted the defense’s motion to move the trial out of LA, supposedly because the beating had been so extensively covered by media there. Instead, the trial proceeded in exurban Ventura County with a jury of nine white people, one Latino, one biracial person, one Asian American and no black people.

On April 29, 1992, after seven days of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict, acquitting the officers on seven of the eight counts. Black Los Angeles immediately rose up in fury. By that night, the center of the uprising was at the corner of Florence and Normandie in South Central.

One of Youngblood’s newest assistant ministers, 25-year-old Rev. Anthony Bennett, knew that intersection. Growing up in South Central, the son of a preschool teacher and a nurse’s assistant, he had walked past it on his way to and from elementary school, and often bought candy from a store on that corner. He found himself yearning for Youngblood to speak about what was inflaming his old neighborhood and city.

“When I looked back at my church in Los Angeles, the tradition there was not political, it was more veiled,” Bennett, who is now the pastor of Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, recently recalled. “Whereas at St. Paul, with Youngblood, it was more in-your-face. It was more direct biblical hermeneutics, letting the Scripture speak to the contemporary narrative.”

As the mother of three sons and the grandmother of two grandsons, Sarah Plowden was also waiting for the word from the pulpit. “I wanted to let my male children and grandchildren have a voice,” recalled Plowden, who had been a St. Paul member since 1975 and was serving as its church administrator in 1992. “I knew it would take time to get this racism piece taken out. But I needed to hear my grandsons’ anger. And I knew that his anger was different from mine. I could say to my girl grandchildren, ‘You can make it between all of obstacles.’ But for my grandsons, how long?”

April 29, when the uprising began, was a Wednesday, and midweek was when Youngblood began preparing his Sunday sermon. Throughout the spring, he had been delivering a series of weekly sermons on the Samson narrative, chapters 13 through 16 in the Book of Judges. With those homilies, Youngblood was seeking to revise the conventional view of Samson by black preachers — the fallible man, led to disaster by his weakness for Delilah’s flesh. Instead of wagging his ministerial finger in reproach, Youngblood had been emphasizing the godly role in Samson’s birth and strength, and also pointing to his intelligence.

The impending Sunday, May 3, left Youngblood with only the last nine verses, Judges 16:23-31. At first, he wondered whether he should just postpone the sermon, preach on a different text that might be better suited to the moment. Still, he decided to give Judges a chance, and he arose before dawn on Thursday morning to read his King James Bible in the lamplit quiet of his living room. He called that time and place “the listening post.” It was where he waited for God to speak, for the Holy Spirit to guide.

Several of the verses leaped right out at him. By this point in Chapter 16, Samson has not only been shorn of his hair and held captive by the Philistines but blinded as well. Judges 16:25 described the Philistines holding a festival to their pagan god Dagon and using Samson as the entertainment:

“And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars.”

The verse brought to Youngblood’s mind an image from the Holliday video: King on the pavement being kicked and pummeled and taunted by officers who stood around leisurely as if on a coffee break. A second piece of the footage also flashed in his memory: King trying to stand and being driven back to the ground, his uprightness an affront to his tormentors.

The ancient Philistines, of course, neglected in their revelry the fact that Samson’s hair, the source of his strength, had grown back. They blithely granted his wish to be placed near the columns on Dagon’s temple, supposedly to help keep his balance. They paid no attention when, in Judges 16:28, Samson called on God to “remember me … and strengthen me.” And then, in Judges 16:30, Samson began pulling down the pillars and the temple roof with them:

“And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.”

Now Youngblood had no doubt about the subject of his sermon.“That was one of those providential times,” he recalled. “I was doing the Samson series and then, boom, it happened. I didn’t run to a text and, as we say sometimes, turn it into a pretext. I was already dealing with Samson as a biblical figure and then this happened.”

Now Youngblood had no doubt about the subject of his sermon.“That was one of those providential times,” he recalled. “I was doing the Samson series and then, boom, it happened. I didn’t run to a text and, as we say sometimes, turn it into a pretext. I was already dealing with Samson as a biblical figure and then this happened.”

By the time the weekend arrived, Los Angeles was well on its way to recording the 63 deaths, 2,800 injuries and $1 billion in property damage caused by the riot. In the emerging narrative of the mainstream media, outrage about the police officers’ acquittal was justified, but violence was not.

To which Youngblood, outlining his sermon, had an answer: “People say, ‘Why do we have to burn down our own homes, our own neighborhoods?’ And I remember thinking that, No. 1, most of those people were renters. Even the ones who have businesses rent the building their business is in. Their landlords live in different area codes, overcharge rents, won’t keep the property up. And nobody considers that. Is it better to live in a cold apartment in the dead of winter and not complain about it? The Apostle Paul says, ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness.’ [Ephesians 6:12] So while our anger looks like something bad, it becomes the one way we can keep hope alive of not being totally defeated.”

The last foundational piece of the sermon fused together Youngblood’s father Palmon, handcuffed before his family’s eyes, and King, prostrate on the pavement under a rain of blows, and blinded Samson, trotted out for his oppressors’ amusement. An idiom, a bit of folk wisdom, popped into Youngblood’s brain: “You don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

At the 8 a.m. worship service on May 3, 1992, with St. Paul’s sanctuary packed by 1,500 worshippers, Youngblood intoned those words as the sermon’s title. And as he traversed the homiletic ground, his words reincarnating the shackled Samson and then the pulverized King and then the Samson triumphant in death, he reiterated the words as his coda: “You don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

One of the rapt listeners in the pews that morning was Richard Honeywell, a 28-year-old insurance underwriter for Aetna and a regular participant in St. Paul’s men’s Bible study group. “It was refreshing to hear that our anger, that our angst, that our rage, is justified and to hear it phrased that your oppressor can’t determine for you what your response should be,” he recalled recently. “Oftentimes, even in our own community, people will come out stronger against people vandalizing government buildings, corporate buildings, that are symbols of their oppression. When your bodies have been the object of oppression all along, you have to come out as strongly against those who are the cause of our oppression. When you go back to the text, you see how radical it can be.”

Now, 28 years later, it is impossible to fully reconstruct the sermon. Youngblood never wrote out full manuscripts of his sermons. The church used to make cassette tapes of each worship service, but the recording of May 3, 1992, has not turned up. Youngblood retired from St. Paul in 2009 — he had always promised to step down at age 60 — and since then has pastored another church, Mount Pisgah Baptist. It had been in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, but all the gentrification there has convinced Youngblood to relocate to a solidly blacker part of Queens. “Wherever the ghetto is,” he put it, “is where I want to be.”

Over his years as a minister, Youngblood has delivered some of his most famous sermons — Christmas in the Raw and Lazarus and the Black Man among them — multiple times. He has given them during revivals or as the guest preacher in other churches. Since May 3, 1992, though, he has never repeated You Don’t Kick a Man When He’s Down.

By now, after the police killings of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, to cite just a few, nobody sensate believes that having video from a smartphone or a body camera is very likely to lead to anybody in blue, or a “neighborhood watch” vigilante being convicted. The communal temper of black America and its allies of other races, held mostly in check since the Los Angeles uprising, has now seized the entire nation. Maybe it’s time, Youngblood said the other day, to preach about Samson again.

Samuel G. Freedman, a regular contributor to The Undefeated, is a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of books including “Breaking The Line,” about black college football and Civil Rights Movement.