James Hawkins, Who Defended Family From Gangs, Dies at 80


James Henry Hawkins Sr., who won fame for his gun-toting defense of his family’s Watts businesses and neighborhood against gang members, has died. He was 80.

The patriarch of the once-embattled family died Thursday of prostate cancer, his son Elton said Friday. He was taken from his home on Slater Street to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The father of 14 won national fame, and praise from Mayor Tom Bradley and others, after a 1983 altercation with the “Bounty Hunters” gang outside his Slater Street grocery, one of several businesses Hawkins owned. One alleged gang member was killed during that incident.


It touched off two nights of retaliatory harassment against his home and businesses by the gang from nearby Nickerson Gardens housing project. Round-the-clock police patrols were assigned to protect the Hawkins enclave.

Police later suggested that the family move away for its own safety. Seventeen gang members were convicted for crimes involving the Hawkins family.

Elton Hawkins said his father adamantly refused to bow either to gang harassment or the suggestion that he move. “My father said he would only leave in a pine box,” the son said Friday. “And that’s what he did.”

Hawkins’ eldest son and namesake, James Henry Hawkins Jr., 47, was convicted of manslaughter for the September, 1983, shotgun slaying of reputed gang member Anttwon Thomas. Witnesses agreed that Thomas was shot shortly after the two Hawkinses broke up a scuffle outside their grocery store, where Thomas and several other local youths had accosted a family riding bikes through the neighborhood.

Hawkins Jr. was sentenced to 28 years in prison, but escaped during a 1985 court appearance on other charges. After his recapture, he was also convicted of the 1984 murders of two purported drug dealers. The younger Hawkins was sentenced to life in prison for those murders.

Although he had tried to support his son after the 1983 shooting at the store, the senior Hawkins told The Times not long after his son’s escape: “You just always have a bad apple, you know, in the bunch. I did all I know to do, I did everything there was to raise ‘em. I have 14 of them and never been on the county (welfare). He’s the one who’s given us all the trouble.”

Elton Hawkins said Friday his father still believed in the law enforcement system despite what happened to his namesake.

“Dad was still a hero,” Elton said. “He changed this community.”

Born in 1911 to a poor family in Gould, Ark., the senior Hawkins came to Los Angeles in 1942 riding on a mule. He got a job as a truck driver and saved enough money to start a business in the 11600 block of Slater. The family enterprises soon included the market, Hawkins House of Burgers and, in 1950, the area’s first motorized escort service for funeral processions and celebrity motorcades.

Even before Hawkins came to national media attention, he was well known for giving away thousands of hams at Easter and frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas to poor families in the neighborhood.

Hawkins is survived by his wife of six decades, Elsie, and by 13 of his 14 children, 75 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Funeral services are set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Angeles Funeral Home, 39th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard.

The family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the American Cancer Society.