More than a year after he became a hero for saving two motorists at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues during last year's riots, Reginald Morris returned to the fateful corner Sunday, this time amid a cheering crowd instead of an angry mob.
With the throbbing bass of hip-hop music and the thumping drums of a South Los Angeles marching band, Morris launched a 641-mile "Job Walk" to Sacramento, where he plans to appeal to Gov. Pete Wilson to spend more state funds on youth employment.
"We're going to bring some jobs to this community and all the communities of this state," bellowed Morris, 25, executive director and founder of the Youth Jobs Awareness Project, a post-riot organization to find jobs for teen-agers and young adults.
Donning running shorts and a T-shirt with his Team America logo and theme of his walk, and speaking with the fervor of a Baptist preacher, Morris stressed that the planned 58-day trek is an attempt to call attention to the need for youth employment in all major cities.
"Our youth are outside of the American dream. They've been cut off," he called out to the more than 70 people gathered in the parking lot of a gas station across from where he saved the motorists. "We've got to bring that hope back to them."
A former Los Angeles County telecommunications employee, Morris founded the jobs organization with his wife, Renea, in the living room of their South-Central Los Angeles home a week after the riots. The goal was to find temporary and permanent jobs throughout the county for young people and to train them in job search techniques.
He said their telephone hot line has placed 1,000 young people in jobs offered by a number of corporations. The organization earlier this year moved into a trailer of offices in Willowbrook, donated by the Walt Disney Co.
In an effort spread their message and find more employers willing to offer jobs, they decided two months ago to stage a walk to Sacramento.
"We're really trying to get across that it's not just a Los Angeles issue," said Renea Morris, 28. "We want to bring that awareness to California and get people to rally behind us on a state and, eventually, national level."
On the first day of the riots, Reginald Morris drove to Florence and Normandie, two blocks from his home, to see if he could offer assistance. Twice in the span of 15 minutes he saved motorists from being attacked by angry mobs by helping them from their cars and leading them to safety.
Morris has spent the past two months working with a personal trainer--whose services were donated by the Weingart YMCA--to prepare for the walk. He plans to walk about 15 miles a day, stopping in various cities to meet with municipal and school officials about the need for employment opportunities.
Morris' trainer, Eric Gassoway, will join him on the walk and two employees of the jobs organization will follow in a motor home.
On the first mile of his walk, Morris was accompanied by Olympic gold medalist Valerie Brisco-Hooks.
"His enthusiasm and the fact that he was willing to go this far for this was real appealing to me," Brisco-Hooks said.
The Ujima Village drill team from Willowbrook led a group of nearly 50 people down Normandie to Manchester Avenue, where they held a brief rally at St. Andrews Recreation Center. The marching crowd and cacophony of drums and shouting, rapping teen-agers brought traffic to a halt along Normandie as curious drivers slowed down for a look.
Young workers for the jobs organization sprinted off toward cars to hand out flyers about the job walk and its phone number. Reginald Morris worked like a politician, stopping to shake hands with curious residents and plug the walk while carrying his 3-year-old son, Jonathan .
Morris and the walking team plan to continue the walk today along Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, stopping in Ventura, where Morris is expected to meet with city officials.