California Forum

In Selma to honor their fathers

Bill Lesher retraces his steps along with thousands of others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches that led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, in March in Selma, Ala.
Bill Lesher retraces his steps along with thousands of others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches that led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, in March in Selma, Ala. Jean Lesher

My father-in-law went to Selma, Ala., last spring for the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches that led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act. He flew from his retirement home in Claremont to walk again the steps he took in 1965 alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

Five decades ago, Bill Lesher, a white Lutheran pastor, was among a small army of activists who answered King’s call to join the mostly black protesters on the second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand fair voting laws. The first attempt, on March 7, 1965, ended when protesters were brutally beaten back by police as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King made his plea for supporters to join another attempt to cross the bridge, and my father-in-law was among those who came.

On March 9, they gathered at a chapel and began a terrified second walk toward the bridge. At the bridge’s crest, the marchers knelt and prayed. Instead of continuing the march, King dismissed the protesters complying with a court order rather than risk more violence. A few weeks later, the march began again, this time successfully crossing the bridge and arriving 25,000 strong at the state capitol.

There’s a well-publicized picture of Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the marchers on the second attempt to cross the bridge. My husband’s father is visible in the crowd, a young man in the era’s heavy eyeglass frames and a cleric’s collar.

That picture was posted on Facebook recently, and later another photograph was added to my father-in-law’s page. It’s a shot of a tall, gray-haired octogenarian walking in a crowd of thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge taken on the 50th anniversary. A smile is spread across my father-in-law’s face.

When my husband, Dave, saw that image, he told me he wished he had gone to Selma with his father. But his schedule prohibited him. Instead he posted that picture on his Facebook page, a tribute to his dad.

A friend of ours went to Selma with the memory of his father in his heart. Mark Carlson, who attends St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sacramento with us, said his father wasn’t in Selma 50 years ago, but what happened there impacted him profoundly.

Like Mark, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, the state assemblyman, also attended the anniversary events in Selma to honor his father, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The elder Ridley-Thomas wasn’t in Selma 50 years ago, but his son joined him for the anniversary there and found a deeper understanding of the events that shaped his father’s life.

Selma’s 50th provided an opportunity to reflect how far the nation has come since the turbulent 1960s and how far it still has to go. It also provided a chance for families to honor members who were foot soldiers 50 years ago. And it allowed sons and daughters to honor fathers and mothers who weren’t in Selma, but were shaped by the events that happened there nonetheless.

Selma cemented for my in-laws what became a lifelong commitment to civil rights. My husband is who he is because of what his parents became. That was the case for all three of these sons who each found in the anniversary a way to honor that. Dave did so at home by sharing the image of his dad’s smile; Mark by taking the memory of his father with him to Selma; and Sebastian by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at his father’s side.

Like my husband’s father, Mark’s was a Lutheran pastor who wanted to answer King’s call for help in 1965. But he couldn’t drop his duties heading a new congregation in Fremont on a day’s notice.

“My father became a cheerleader from far away,” Mark said. He preached on equality and organized vigils and devoted himself to promoting racial equality. He became a role model to his son, who now lobbies the California Legislature on poverty and social issues for the Lutheran Office of Public Policy.

Mark first went to Selma 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary. He did that to honor his father, who had recently died. He also attended the 45th anniversary in his father’s honor. He flew there again for the 50th. It wasn’t only the memory of his father he took with him, but thoughts of his mother as well. Mark’s mother was, at age 91, nearing the end of her life when Mark left for Selma. She died while Mark was there.

Mark said his experience in Selma deepened a sense of duty to honor his parents and others who stood up to racism. “I felt a keen awareness that I stand on many shoulders, what we Christians call a ‘cloud of witnesses,’” he said.

After learning in a phone call that his mother had died, Mark sought a florist in Selma and bought 12 long-stemmed roses. He visited churches, meeting sites and other civil rights landmarks. He left a rose at each place, a symbol of both his grief and his gratitude.

There was little question Mark Ridley-Thomas would attend the 50th anniversary events in Alabama. And his son knew he wanted to join his father there.

Mark Ridley-Thomas was a boy living in L.A. when images of police beating marchers in Selma were beamed to living room TVs across the country. As a black youth, he understood what the struggle was about. He became an eyewitness to the spreading outrage when riots erupted in Watts a few years later. Civil rights became Mark Ridley-Thomas’ passion.

He ran the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for a decade, the national organization that was first led by Martin Luther King Jr. He turned toward politics and was elected to represent the 54th Assembly district, the seat his son now holds.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas said his own political stirrings began while visiting his father at SCLC. Like his father, Sebastian focused on social justice issues.

Sebastian met his twin brother, Sinclair, and their father in Selma, and together they watched the nation’s first black president mark the anniversary standing before the bridge where white police had beaten black protesters 50 years earlier.

Side by side and in a crowd of thousands, father and sons marched across the bridge.

Sebastian went to Selma to honor the history that happened there and its impact on his father’s generation. “I understand now more why my father does what he does,” he said. But he left feeling like he’d been given a gift. His own sense of mission has been “supercharged,” he said.

Now he ponders another gift, the advice his father gave him years ago: “Do not be conscripted by things unworthy of your life.”

Laura-Lynne Powell is a writer at the Capitol Morning Report, an online weekday publication that covers state politics and public policy.