In the sanctuary of Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas prepared for the trial of his life.
The veteran lawmaker stood Sunday before the altar alongside his wife, Avis, as a minister beckoned the hundreds gathered to reach their arms out.
Some quarters of the city may have already made their minds up about Ridley-Thomas’ guilt, deciding long ago that he deserved his suspension from the L.A. City Council and worse after he was indicted on federal corruption charges.
But here in the pews of this long-standing Black church, worshipers rose up and held their hands toward a man they’ve called their council member, legislator, advocate and friend.
“Take up the shield of faith,” Bishop S.T. Williams Jr., thundered. Ridley-Thomas bowed his head and held an arm around his wife. “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit.”
It was prayer as a blessing, a pleading, a rallying cry.
After Williams finished reciting the words of St. Paul, the crowd boomed, “Amen,” and burst into applause.
This was an ecumenical and interfaith prayer service with a very specific mission, organized to support Ridley-Thomas two days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in his federal corruption trial.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, who has a long legacy of service in Black Los Angeles, now stands accused of bribery, conspiracy and fraud as part of a scheme in which he allegedly steered contracts to USC in exchange for special benefits for his son, Sebastian, including a job and scholarship.
If convicted, Ridley-Thomas faces up to decades in prison. He has pleaded not guilty, insisted on his innocence, and, like many gathered Sunday, has cast the prosecution as an affront to the Black community and the cause of social and racial justice.
It is a view that looks beyond the pending charges and sees Ridley-Thomas as a Christian ethicist turned activist turned politician whose legacy eclipses the accusations of federal prosecutors.
“I think that people have done a lot worse,” said the Rev. Kenneth Walden, senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church. “So we’re just asking for fairness. We’re not asking for special treatment.”
The federal charges, followed by the leaked backroom recording of Latino leaders plotting to consolidate and preserve their power in the city’s redistricting process while making racist and derogatory comments, have helped fuel a widespread belief that Los Angeles’ Black community is under siege. The fact that the same lawmakers on the recording supported the effort to suspend Ridley-Thomas — preventing his constituents in the 10th District from having representation on the City Council — compounded the sense of grievance and violation.
“We deem this moment as a kind of symbol of where we are in African American politics in Los Angeles,” said Norman Johnson, a convener for the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability, the organization that sponsored Sunday’s event. “We really feel that it’s not just him, but us; he’s not just on trial — we are on trial,” Johnson said.
“And so we want to say to him, that we stand with you; we want to say to our community that we have to stand with those who stood by us and stood with us.”
Walden kicked off the evening by invoking the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He framed Ridley-Thomas’ looming trial as yet another challenge in the long struggle for Black Americans’ civil rights.
“Marching for freedom is never easy. But it is important,” Walden said. “He has been tried in popular opinion in some newspapers. He has been convicted in some popular conversations among some people. But we know Mark Ridley-Thomas as a servant, for all.”
Ridley-Thomas spent a decade as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles in the 1980s, before nine successive victories in elections made him a council member, state assemblyman, state senator, county supervisor, and, again, a council member. His wife, Avis is celebrated for founding the L.A. city attorney’s dispute resolution program, as well as Days of Dialogue, which brought together small groups across the city to discuss community problems.
The political profile of Ridley-Thomas may be operator and orator, but many of his constituents know him best for overseeing the restoration of Martin Luther King Jr. hospital and launching the Empowerment Congress. Those gatherings began after the 1992 riots to encourage residents to become involved in community programs — such as mental health support and job training services.
“His accomplishments are many,” Rabbi Steven Jacobs said in an interview. “And because he’s challenged, people have seemed to have forgotten how enriched their lives are by his actions and his deep convictions.”
More than a dozen religious leaders from across L.A., including Jacobs, spoke from the pulpit to offer prayers, sprinkled with anecdotes.
The Rev. Betty Wright-Riggins recalled when Ridley-Thomas and his wife visited her in the hospital in Pennsylvania.
Dafer Dakhil, executive director of the Omar ibn Al-Khattab Foundation, remembered meeting Ridley-Thomas when their children were in school together in the late 1980s. Dakhil read verses from the Quran, “God is the protector of those who have faith.”
Pastor Julian Lowe of Oasis Church shared from the pulpit that early in his career, Ridley-Thomas invited him to call if he needed anything. Lowe scheduled that call in 2021. But in the days leading up to their appointment came “this terrible assault on his legacy,” when federal prosecutors unveiled an indictment listing 19 counts against Ridley-Thomas. The charges accused him of corruptly conspiring to secure a job and scholarship for his son, who resigned from the state Assembly amid a sexual harassment investigation.
Lowe deleted the call from his calendar, presuming Ridley-Thomas would be too preoccupied to talk. “The clock struck the time he was supposed to speak,” and Lowe picked up the phone and heard Ridley-Thomas’ voice. “He said, ‘Mark Ridley-Thomas, how can I serve?’” Surprised, Lowe admitted that he had not expected the politician to keep the appointment, given all he was going through.
“Young man, you are right, I am in the fire,” Ridley-Thomas told him. “But as long as I am able, I will do the job that I’ve been doing.”
The pews were filled with longtime Ridley-Thomas supporters, including Lowe and Cornel West, the philosopher and author. Former aides, lobbyists, donors and fellow politicians, including state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), and Mike Bonin, the former L.A. City Council member, who showed up with his young son.
“I believe that this is all terrible for him — but also the community,” said John Semcken, an executive at billionaire developer Edward Roski’s company, Majestic Realty. “The truth is, I don’t think he’s done anything wrong.”
Hilary Norton, a member of the California Transportation Commission, said she was among scores of former Ridley-Thomas staff members who remain loyal to and inspired by their former boss. Many were particularly incensed by Ridley-Thomas’ suspension from the City Council when the alleged crimes predated his time on the council.
“To have the person who was always part of enfranchising the community be disenfranchised the way he was, was unconscionable,” Norton said. “That’s why the church was full. We’re praying for justice.”
The typically verbose Ridley-Thomas was quiet through the night. He smiled at supporters and shook hands but was rarely seen without one of his criminal defense attorneys by his side.
“He’s limited in what he can say publicly at this time, thanks to his very able legal team,” said Vincent Harris, a longtime political aide.
“But I know that were he able, he would express his deepest gratitude for your presence this evening, and for the months-long, years-long support.”