When defense attorney Kevin Gough attempted to ban Black pastors from the courtroom during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Pastor Jamal H. Bryant said it was an affront to all Black pastors across the country.
Bryant said since the civil rights movement, Black ministers have always been there to comfort grieving families during the trials of white men accused of killing Black people. The trial for the men charged with killing Arbery is no different, he said.
“I thought what Attorney Gough said was absolutely unnecessary and distracting and polarizing,” said Bryant, who heads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. “He specified by saying ‘Black pastors’ which made it an absolutely amplified racist statement.”
In a show of solidarity against Gough’s comments, Bryant and more than 100 other Black pastors gathered outside the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday and formed a “Wall of Prayer.” The pastors say they wanted to not only lend their support to Arbery’s family but demand justice in the trial.
Some say they also want to call attention to the critical role they play when Black families are devastated by police brutality or vigilante violence. Black clergy have historically sat with victims’ families at trials and funerals, stood beside them at rallies, and press conferences and even been appointed to speak on behalf of families.
They were particularly known to show up during the civil rights movement when Black people were victimized by racist violence. For example, it was Black pastors who spoke out after the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four Black girls.
More recently, Rev. Al Sharpton knelt with the family of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outside of the courthouse during the Derek Chauvin trial in March.
During Thursday’s event, several pastors prayed and addressed the crowd at the courthouse. Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones and family attorneys Ben Crump and Lee Merritt were also present.
“We are looking for a miracle, we are expecting the impossible,” Bryant said to the crowd.
Bishop Reginald Jackson, of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he hoped the gathering would remind the public of Black pastors’ significance to these cases.
“Black pastors have always been the conscience of the nation,” Jackson said. “As we stood with Trayvon Martin’s family, as we stood with Eric Garner’s family, as we stood with Breonna Taylor’s family, as we stood with George Floyd’s family, we stand with with Ahmaud Arbery’s family.”
Sharpton earlier this week described the role of Black clergy as giving “spiritual strength to bear this pain” and said Gough’s comments were only “pouring salt into their wounds.”
Gough has made multiple requests to have Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson removed from the courtroom saying their presence could influence the jury. Gough said last week he had “nothing personally against” Sharpton, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here or other Jesse Jackson, whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson did not attend the trial until Monday when Gough objected to his presence in the courtroom and made a motion for a mistrial. The judge denied his request.
Bishop Reginald Jackson said Gough’s attempt to get Black pastors kicked out of court shows disregard for the grief Arbery’s family is enduring.
“The Arbery family has called on and depended on Black pastors to be their counselors, their encouragers,” Jackson said. “To say we don’t want any more Black pastors in here… it says to that family, we don’t care what your needs are.”
Civil rights leaders and groups are also expected to join the Black pastors in their “Wall of Prayer” on Thursday.
Martin Luther King III is among them. King said Gough’s comments in court were “insensitive” and “beyond insulting” for pastors and many others in the Black community.
Black people, he said, often lean on their pastors for support and prayer when they have suffered a loss.
“For us it feels very racist to say you cannot come to a public proceeding,” King said. “I’d think that a significant number of Black folks were offended by the statement he made.”
Despite Gough’s controversial remarks, King said civil rights leaders and clergy are continuing their plea for justice in the case.
“These men should be convicted for this heinous act,” King said. “It feels like they hunted him down and killed him.”