James Hester Hargett, an influential pastor who marched from Selma to Montgomery with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and fought for equality and social justice in the schools and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, has died at age 87.
A theologian and civil rights crusader, Hargett served parishes across the United States during his lengthy pastoral career and arrived in L.A. near the beginning of what would be a tumultuous but defining era in the fight to end the racial and economic segregation that divided America.
Hargett helped launch outreach programs, health clinics and academic enrichment projects, raised funds for scholarships, marched in the streets for justice and conjured up ways to help children get to school.
After retiring, Hargett and his wife, Louilyn, moved to Pilgrim Place, a Claremont retirement home for social activists. He died there Monday.
“For him, Christian service meant addressing the needs of the community,” his daughter Hester Hargett-Aupetit said. “The church was always the backbone of that effort.”
Hargett was born July 24, 1930, in Greensboro, N.C., the son of a minister. He loved to read, listen to music and play sports, and church was interwoven in all of it. He met his future wife, Louilyn Funderburk, at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, where he earned a pre-law degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School and a doctorate from what was then Colgate-Rochester Seminary.
He was ordained in 1955, the same year he became an associate minister at Crossroads United Church of Christ in Honolulu, the first African American minister to lead a Protestant church in Hawaii, which was still years away from statehood.
When Hargett arrived in L.A. as the new minister at Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, he inherited a congregation that faced an uphill climb — excluded from suburban neighborhoods, overlooked for high-paying jobs, targeted by the police and far removed from the choice schools.
The elements of that divide boiled to the surface in the Watts riots in 1965.
That same year, Hargett joined King in the historic marches from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, the state capital. The marches became an emblem of the civil rights movement.
Later, King asked Hargett to serve as the West Coast representative for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, then a guiding force in the national civil rights movements. Hargett also helped organize the Poor People’s Resurrection City, a shantytown that was erected in Washington, D. C., to dramatize the needs of the economically disadvantaged.
Former Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle was a fiery young civil rights fighter when he first took stock of Hargett.
“I was inspired by him, as were others,” said Tuttle. “If you were planning something — anything, you’d always ask ‘What would Jim think?’ ”
When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Hargett saw it as his moral duty to call for calm in the streets of L.A.
“He just wanted to keep the city from exploding,” his daughter said.
The year after King’s death, Hargett was named secretary for Black Ministries of the United Church of Christ and moved to New York to recruit, train and place African American ministers in church across the country. He later became a senior minister in Chicago and then moved to San Diego, where he was a minister at Christian Fellowship Congregational Church until his retirement in 1997.
“His loss is immeasurable. His work is not completed,” said William Funderburk, Jr., Hargett’s nephew and a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioner. “It will guide innovation for national impact, just like the life he richly lived.
Hargett-Aupetit, a film producer, said her father was well-read and scholarly and pragmatic about his activism.
“He never entered into a cause thinking everything would succeed,” she said. “But he knew with effort and patience, it might succeed.”