Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tragic death by journeying to the place where he was assassinated in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
On April 4, 1968, 13-year-old Mark Ridley-Thomas was an eighth grader on the campus of George Washington Carver Middle School in southeast Los Angeles when news broke of Dr. King’s assassination. He had heard Dr. King’s unmistakable voice on the radio station KGFJ and, even as a young teenager, felt the power of his words and the tragedy of his loss.
Inspired by the immortal I Have a Dream speech, Ridley-Thomas took an undergraduate course titled “Social Ethics of Martin Luther King” at Immaculate Heart College in 1974, on his way to earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with secondary and adult education teaching credentials. By 1976, he himself was teaching a full-length semester course on the philosophy of Dr. King to college preparatory students at Immaculate Heart High School.
In 1977, Ridley-Thomas was recruited to the local board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Los Angeles, an affiliate of the organization founded by Dr. King in 1957. By age 26, Ridley-Thomas had risen to become executive director of its Los Angeles Chapter. During the 80’s, Ridley-Thomas furthered his studies and deepened his writings on Dr. King while earning a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the University of Southern California, with a focus on Social Criticism and Social Change.
Ridley-Thomas headed the SCLC of Greater Los Angeles for a decade, from 1981 to 1991, working on such issues as school desegregation, police misconduct, domestic violence, sexual assault, dispute resolution, parental empowerment and voter registration. From 1991 to the present, Ridley-Thomas has held several elected public offices, guided by the philosophy of Dr. King on a range of critical issues, including police accountability, homelessness, voting rights, affordable quality education, living wage, and healthcare for all.
“Dr. King’s death was a turning point in my life as it relates to the philosophy of nonviolence,” the Supervisor said. “To be in Memphis now, 50 years later, is really quite moving.”
During his time in Memphis, the Supervisor visited the Lorraine Motel, where an assassin’s bullet felled Dr. King. The Supervisor also participated in discussions of Dr. King’s legacy; a celebration of Dr. King’s final sermon, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop; and a march and rally to the “mountaintop” at Mason Temple.
Among those who participated in the tributes were Rep. John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King in Selma; the Rev. James Lawson, who had invited Dr. King to Memphis in 1968; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman; and, finally, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, who served as event co-chair.
A contingent from Los Angeles traveled to Memphis to pay tribute to Dr. King, including Bishop Charles E. Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, also an event co-chair. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman, and drummer Sheila E also made the journey, and noted photographer Leroy Hamilton documented the various events. They joined thousands of people from around the world in celebrating and commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. King.
“We have a lot of unfinished business related to justice, peace and human dignity,” the Supervisor said. “But the nation owes a great debt of gratitude to Dr. King and his family and all of those continuing to fight for justice and democracy.”
A Fifty Year Journey