Ricky Lewis was driving along Florence Avenue on April 29, 1992, when the neighborhood erupted.
"I saw all the crowds and thought, 'What is going on here?'"
He was witnessing, as he soon learned, a defining moment in Los Angeles. The verdict had just landed in the trial of the officers who beat Rodney G. King senseless, and the rioting that followed would lead to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Fires flared, businesses were looted, and National Guard and Marine units were called in.
Lewis, a University of the Pacific graduate and member of the predominantly black Omega Psi Phi fraternity, lived in South L.A., and he understood the reaction to the verdict as well as how the long cycle of economic decline in the neighborhood fueled the anger. But to Lewis, who worked in the aerospace industry, the mayhem was a call for men like him to take more of a leadership role.
"I called some of the men of Omega Psi Phi and said: 'You know what? This city's in an uproar. Let's try to get 100 young boys together and teach them about wellness and leadership, manhood and personal responsibility.'"
And so it began.
Lewis and his Omega Psi Phi brothers, Tau Tau chapter, recruited boys at churches, YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs. The first Youth Leadership Conference was held in 1993 at Southwest College, with 100 youngsters on hand to hear Psi Phi members talk about subjects from manners to morality. The men then mentored the youngsters through that year and beyond.
Eventually, the conference outgrew Southwest and then it outgrew Compton College, moving on to its current home at USC. And this Saturday marks the 20th anniversary. More than 600 youngsters between 8 and 18 have registered for an event where they'll hear speeches, Lewis said, and attend workshops on "manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift."
The men of Omega Psi Phi, dozens of them, will be wearing suits, as they always do at the conferences, taking their jobs as role models seriously.
They'll include Brandon Brown, a former conference attendee who went on to become a teacher.
Chris Walton, a former attendee who just finished law school.
And Eddie Magee, a former attendee and fraternity member who is now a physician.
The three men recalled how impressed they were as teenagers to see an army of successful businessmen urging them to set lofty goals and go after them, and to learn enough about their own history to establish a true sense of cultural pride.
"Ricky Lewis was very passionate about us doing well … and the Omega men were in suits, lined up around us, wanting us to … live with integrity, work hard," Magee said. "They didn't push college down your throat, but they pushed living right, respect your parents, your neighbors, your female counterpart. Respect yourself, and you'll get to the places where you want to go."
"Although they didn't directly influence me to become a teacher, they did influence me to give back to the community as they've done," said Brown, who joined Psi Phi in college and will bring five young men from his church to Saturday's conference.
"I was just kind of looking for a big brother," said Walton, who attended the 1999 conference after his parents divorced. "My mom was raising me, my life was in disarray, and it was a good influence on my life at that time."
The original idea was to focus on black youth, Lewis said, but no one is turned away. Last year's conference included quite a few Latino boys and a white kid or two.
When I dropped in on Lewis on Monday night at his home in South L.A., his wife, Vicky, was watching over Wyatt, 8, as their son did his homework. Wyatt is home-schooled, in a group of other home-schooled kids from the neighborhood, and he'll be a participant at this year's conference for the first time.
Lewis frequently told me his sermon to kids, including those who don't have the kind of family support that Wyatt has, is "no excuses."
That's an important message, no doubt. But a lot of the kids Lewis works with are facing serious challenges. Single-parent families are commonplace. Schools are often sub-par. Drugs and gangs are still menaces, and the manufacturing and aerospace economy is largely gone, replaced by low-paying jobs.
All true, said Lewis, and he doesn't claim to be able to solve any of that. Sure, kids from his neighborhood are up against it, he said, and some are beyond the help he can offer at an annual conference followed by a little mentoring.
But that won't knock him off his message, which is that no matter where or how they live, young men have to be held to high standards and be supported by the communities they live in. He can afford to live anywhere in the city, Lewis said, but he and his wife choose to stay where they are, in the company of hardworking neighbors. It's home, and giving back is just part of the deal.
"My mama was a 10th-grade dropout, and my father barely graduated from high school, but what they instilled in me is that you've got to grind," Lewis said. "She'd say, 'Son, does everyone have 24 hours in a day, just like you?' Yes, ma'am. 'Does anybody have a brain bigger than yours?' No ma'am. 'Well then go ahead and do what you're supposed to do.'"