BRUNSWICK, Ga. – As the man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery returned to the witness stand Thursday morning, hundreds of faith leaders from around the country rallied and prayed outside the Glynn County Courthouse in support of Arbery’s family.
Among them were the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose presence in the courtroom with Arbery’s parents sparked comments from one of the defense attorney’s in the case, who said he didn’t want “any more Black pastors” sitting in the courtroom with Arbery’s family.
“I didn’t come in the courtroom to protest. I came to pray,” Sharpton said. “We are here today to pray for this family to have strength. We know the pain that they suffer. The same pain Emmett Till’s mother suffered. The same pain Trayvon Martin’s mother suffered.”
Attorney Kevin Gough, who is representing William “Roddie Bryan, asked the judge last week to remove Sharpton from the court, saying the civil rights activist was trying to influence the jury, which is disproportionately white. The judge refused, and later called Gough’s remarks “reprehensible.” Gough has since apologized for the comment but has repeatedly pointed out the presence of the pastors and asked the judge not to allow them in the gallery.
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Gough’s controversial remarks became a rallying cry, and several events took place in Glynn County Thursday, including a breakfast, the prayer rally and a march.
“That was a very divisive statement. Very unnecessary. The family can have anyone there to support them. And if that clergy happens to be Black,” said Sharon Ehre, who was attending the breakfast. “It’s a kind of thing that we really don’t want to support in this community. We want to be there for each other, and that statement was not helpful.”
As testimony resumed inside the Glynn County courthouse, with its four huge columns, arched windows and shaded lawn, the group of mostly Black ministers gathered outside — a sea of dark suits and white collars.
Many carried signs reading, “Black pastors matter,” and some wore buttons with Arbery’s picture and the hashtag they were using for the case, “#JusticeForAhmaud.” A vendor sold T-shirts under one tent while a woman under another offered water and snacks and asked people to put donations in a pickle jar.
Criticizing the failed attempt to keep Black pastors out of court, Sharpton told the rally that no one had questioned who is sitting with the defendants’ families.
“No lawyer can knock us out. Because no matter where you are, God is there,” he said. “We are going to keep coming until we get justice.”
Martin Luther King III, son of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., addressed the throng saying, “It only takes a few good women and men to bring change.”
Prayer has been a key to helping Black people through centuries of slavery, violence and discrimination in America, said Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery. “That’s all we lived on. That’s all we had was prayer. What did our great-grandmothers depend on?”
Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney representing the Arbery family, predicted the defense would ask the judge for a mistrial because of the demonstration outside the courthouse.
“We need preachers to come pray for them in this insane situation, this inhumane situation,” he said. Earlier, people in the crowd chanted the names of Black people who have been killed in high-profile cases in which racism or police brutality were alleged.
Church vans from a wide range of denominations were parked along streets around the courthouse. The Rev. Gregory Edwards was broadcasting a Facebook Live video back to his friends in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he is pastor of the Resurrected Life Community Church, United Church of Christ.
As soon as the call for pastors to come to Brunswick went out, Edwards said, he rearranged his schedule to fly down.
“I would have walked,” said Edwards, who also runs a multifaith, multiracial community organizing group. Edwards said he cried when he saw the video of the 25-year-old Black man’s shooting death and thought of his three Black adult sons.
“Through technology we have been forced to bear witness to the public executions of our Black brothers and sisters,” Edwards said.
Bishop Sylvester Williams, of the Third Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said he traveled from St. Louis.
“For the eyes of the nation is watching what is going on here, so I’m very hopeful that this will send a message,” he said.
A group of businesses in Brunswick and surrounding Glynn County joined together to provide a lunch of free barbecue sandwiches, shrimp and side dishes before the pastors rallied. Organizer Mike Mally said the group wanted to show that the community was united, not divided by race.
“We figured this was a good thing to do with all these visitors,” Mally said.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, thanked everyone for being there, telling the crowd she was full of joy in the midst of a broken heart.
“My family and I are very grateful that these pastors are coming in to lend support because support is what we need. We need the encouragement,” Cooper-Jones said. “This is a very, very hard time for my family, and anybody who comes to lend, to give us strength and encouragement is much appreciated.”
After the defense attorneys rested Thursday, she reiterated how the prayer rally meant a lot to her.
“Walking out of the door of the courthouse at lunchtime was very, very encouraging,” Cooper-Jones said. “That they took the time out of their busy schedules to travel near and far to come and stand with me and my family in prayer, it really meant a lot to me. It did.”
'I'm very confident we will get a guilty verdict': Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of #AhmaudArbery, says she's optimistic about the trial of the three men charged in her son's death. Defense attorneys have rested their case & closing arguments are set for Monday @wjxt4 pic.twitter.com/iphYqjM13l— Renee Beninate (@reneebeninate) November 19, 2021
Cooper-Jones was in the gallery listening Thursday morning as prosecutors continued their cross-examination of Travis McMichael, the man who fatally shot her son.
McMichael testified Wednesday that Arbery forced him to make a split-second “life-or-death” decision by attacking him and grabbing his shotgun. He testified on Thursday that Arbery did not speak, show a weapon or threaten him in any way before he raised his shotgun and pointed it at him.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, who led the cross-examination of McMichael, contended there was no justification for McMichael and his father to arm themselves and chase Arbery when he ran past their Georgia home on Feb. 23, 2020.
The shooting deepened a national outcry over racial injustice after cellphone video of Arbery’s death leaked online two months later.
McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their home from a nearby house under construction. Bryan, a neighbor, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded the video.
The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a burglar because security cameras had recorded him several times in the unfinished house on their street.
Prosecutors say the men chased Arbery for five minutes and used their trucks to prevent him from fleeing their neighborhood before Travis McMichael shot him. The defense contends Arbery was killed in self-defense.