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"Little Baghdad"

April 24, 2007 |  5:12 pm

Dr_mays_broadway_2What's behind this sign on Broadway south of Manchester?

Four decades of frustration and heartbreak, that's what.

James Mays, a medical doctor with two clinics in the hard-scrabble black neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles, had the sign made about 1 1/2 years ago, he said, after one too many of his patients came in on a Monday morning, saying: "Guess whose son just died!"

Mays , the self-made son of an Arkansas railroad worker, is part of America's greatest generation of black Southern migrants. Now 67, he made his way through college, and then to medical school, in an era when a talented tenth of black aspirants were pioneers in the professions. Along the way, he served as a combat doctor in Vietnam.

He landed in California just two months before the '65 Watts riots. "I thought California was the land of oranges. It wasn't," he said.

All through his long career -- first at the now defunct Queen of Angels in Hollywood, then as chief of cardiology at King-Drew, and finally at his clinics -- he watched and lamented the way blacks seemed to be "lashing out against themselves."

"I'd see little boys come in who were hiding behind their mother's skirts. They cried when I gave them shots. They became the same ones shooting later," he said.

Despite a recent stroke that has slowed his walk, Mays continues to work at his jam-packed clinics,  decorated with peeling immunization posters and pictures of Mandela and Malcolm X. On a recent day, patients, some of whom had spilled out on to the steps outside, greeted him like a beloved uncle.  For him, the sign is just part of the work he has always done, doctoring the sick in the community he has devoted his life to. In this case,though, the patient is the city. "You can't heal Los Angeles until you heal South-Central and Watts," he said.

L.A. isn't Baghdad, he concedes. There are no bombs. But the almost daily murders and maimings evoke a war zone and call for a broad-scale national response, he said.

The sign is mounted next to an American flag. Both wars, he said, are patriotic causes. But the homicides "were here before the Iraq war and will be here after," he said.