By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Two days before he went on trial on federal corruption charges, suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was the guest of honor at a spiritual prayer vigil at Holman United Methodist Church.
The March 5 event was put together by the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability, a network of pastors and ministers in South Los Angeles churches.
Ridley-Thomas sat quietly among the congregation, flanked by his wife, Avis, other family members and his criminal defense team for two hours listening to impassioned speeches by pastors, heartfelt tributes from well-wishers and spirited singing from the Gospel Choir Music Workshop filled the sanctuary.
Trial began arch 7 in a downtown federal court building where Ridley-Thomas is accused of steering county money to the USC School of Social Work in exchange for a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship for his son, Sebastian. Ridley-Thomas is charged with 20 counts, including conspiracy, bribery and fraud.
Among those speaking on behalf of Ridley-Thomas was a veteran of the civil rights movement, Rev. James Lawson.
Assisted by a walker as he slowly approached the pulpit, Lawson, now 94, recounted his long friendship with Ridley-Thomas that dates back to 1974, when Ridley-Thomas was a student at USC.
“We’ve been colleagues and friends ever since,” Lawson said.
Ken Walden, senior pastor at Holman, noted that the Ridley-Thomas trial began March 7, the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, when civil rights protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge to the state capital in Montgomery in support of voting rights for African Americans.
“They were determined to march for justice,” Walden said, comparing the solidarity surrounding Ridley-Thomas to the protesters who defiantly marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Marching for freedom is never easy, but it is important.”
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of the Progressive Faith Foundation told Ridley-Thomas not to be discouraged and to continue to fight.
“These are not the times that do not just try our souls, these are the times that define our souls, that determine our character that demonstrate how good we are,” he said.
Also taking part in the evening were the Rev. Louis Chase, minister of community outreach for Holman United Methodist Church; apostle Beverly “Bam” Crawford of the Bible Enrichment Fellowship International Church; and the Rev. Norman S. Johnson, convener of the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability.
Toward the end of the evening, Johnson guided Ridley-Thomas and his wife to the front of the church where they were showered with applause. Ridley-Thomas was advised by his legal team not to speak,
After the service, Los Angeles Urban League Executive Director Michael Lawson said that the Urban League had protested the indictment of Ridley-Thomas in its earliest stages.
“Early on, the Los Angeles Urban League sent a letter stating that (the accusations directed toward Ridley-Thomas) were treating someone as guilty before there was even a trial,” Lawson said.
“The fact that he was not just accused but immediately found guilty was wrong,” Lawson added. “The thought of guilty until proven innocent is not what this country is about and that is what Ridley-Thomas has been suffering under for so long.
State Sen. Steve Bradford, D-Gardena, also spoke out in defense of Ridley-Thomas.
“I hope that during the trial the judge and the jury will find him innocent of what he has been charged with.”
Bradford said. “Mark has done nothing more than try to serve his community.
“To misconstrue folks who have done nothing but serve and give a life that for the last 40 years has been impeccable and above reproach and questioned — I’m sorry that people are misinterpreting it as such but he has done what he’s always done — been a public servant.
“I hope the outcome of the trial will be his innocence,” said Bradford,who added that he was pleased that the sanctuary was filled with friends and colleagues demonstrating their support.
“The turnout was excellent,” said Bradford as he surveyed the crowd. “If this is any example of the love and support that Mark Ridley-Thomas has in his community and if anybody was ever to doubt or question it, they just should have been here tonight. I mean, (there was) a cross-section of Los Angeles here — multi-racial and multi-denominational — I’m quite impressed with it and I am glad that I was able to to be here and celebrate and just say thank you to him in support.”
Also seated in the audience and showing their support were former City Councilman Mike Bonin and author and philosopher Cornell West.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.