By Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr – Guest Columnist
Since I was four years old, I have witnessed and resisted racism. Now at the age of 95 (in just a few weeks), I have observed many disturbing events, but I am particularly perturbed by the sentencing of Dr. Mark Ridley Thomas. It is the cruelest of the ironies of history that Dr. Ridley-Thomas was sentenced for felony convictions stemming from efforts to empower African American voters on August 28th, the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
This unique case has been waged against the legacy of leadership produced by the African American community, the benefits of which are not limited to Black people. In other words, this case is the by-product of a racist power structure designed to crush the transformative leadership Mark Ridley-Thomas embodies and we share.
The United States vs Mark Ridley-Thomas is not a typical bribery case. Mark Ridley-Thomas received no monetary benefits from an exchange of something of value for something of value. His son received no monetary benefits. There was no exchange of money, no embezzlement, no lavish trips or gifts. The only thing involved was just one unanimously passed contract amendment to help mental health projects.
The case against Mark Ridley-Thomas lacks merit. It’s more persecution than prosecution. More abuse of power by the USAO aimed at communities of color and compounding its mass incarceration strategy.
As a matter of fact, the donation to the non-profit that was the basis for his conviction was determined to be legal. Yes, it originated from the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better Los Angeles, a ballot committee be lawfully controlled. It was the same entity that funded the polling and research that led to the 2017 L.A. County voter-approved quarter cent sales tax to fund the fight against housing insecurity and the increase in homeless services.
The jury found Mark Ridley-Thomas not guilty on 12 of 19 counts pressed by Federal prosecutors—63%. He was acquitted on the performance of acts related to his son’s admission, tuition and non-tenure professorship. But the government exaggerates the scale of corruption to propagate prosecutor’s ever-shifting, misleading and frequently false narrative. This is how the abuse of power and racism work hand in hand.
The Mark Ridley-Thomas we all know is an exceptionally well prepared servant leader—like him personally or not. No one familiar with his herculean efforts to empower Black people and other marginalized people can credibly refute this fact. His work ethic is unmatched. His academic credentials set him apart most others.
As founder of the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project (AAVREP), he worked overtime to ensure that over 200,000 voters in Los Angles County were registered since its founding in 2002. There was simply no other comparable, sustained effort to harness the Black vote at a time of declining demographic presence. Mark Ridley-Thomas refused to permit Black voters to be ignored, forgotten or dismissed. The martyrs of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Selma are testimony to the importance of the right to vote.
Mark Ridley-Thomas registered us to vote and mobilized turn out to ensure that we knew Black lives matter and Black votes count.
No one familiar with Mark Ridley-Thomas can dispute his commitment to facilitating the organization of his constituents to effectively make known their views through the Empowerment Congress. Its mission —-“to educate , engage and empower”—has been a presence in the South L.A. community for over thirty years. Its annual summits have attracted thousands of civic leaders, neighborhood activists, elected officials, entrepreneurs, service providers and philanthropists in observance of the MLK holiday. The summit encourage social activism and urge participants to take stock of the progress we have made as a society to redeem the Dream’s “promissory note” of social equity and genuine equality for all of God’s children.
This perspective gives rise to a political legacy and tradition of inclusive coalition building, civil and human rights advocacy that shared these values and a demonstrated commitment to broad-based empowerment. It is what some of us aspiration ally call the “beloved community”.
As an unapologetic advocate of political empowerment, Mark Ridley-Thomas consciously cultivated his base of support within the African American community by encouraging civic engagement and faith-based outreach and mobilization, voter registration, dialogue, education and participation. With this base as a foundation, he accumulated authority and used his unique ability to identify, marshal and deploy the resources of the public sector to address socio-economic issues on favorable terms for his multi-racial and working class constituents. Given his record of achievement, who denies he used his intellect, and power to benefit his constituents, regardless of race, gender or orientation?
As a servant leader following in the tradition of march on Washington organizers, the Mark Ridley-Thomas we know dared to lead for all of us.
Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. is pastor emeritus of Holman UMC and was a leading theoretician and tactician of nonviolence within the Civil Rights Movement.