Editors’ note: This article has been updated.
As the lead prosecutor cross-examined one of three men accused in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery inside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia on Thursday (November 18), scores of Black pastors from all over the country gathered outside in defiance of the defense team’s attempt to keep them away.
Black pastors and other Christian leaders not only showed to support the victim’s family, but to also pray for justice to be served in the racially-charged case involving three White men accused of murdering Arbery, a 25-year-old African American male.
After defense attorney Kevin Gough requested that the judge specifically ban Black pastors from the courtroom, almost immediately, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Pastor Jamal Bryant, attorney Benjamin Crump, and others issued a nationwide call for Black pastors to meet for a “Power of Prayer Vigil” outside the courthouse.
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“I thought what Attorney Gough said was absolutely unnecessary and distracting and polarizing,” Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Lithonia, Georgia, told CNN. “He specified by saying ‘Black pastors’ which made it an absolutely amplified racist statement.”
Pastor Tracey Stallworth is a county organizer for the nonpartisan Faith in Florida organization based in Orlando. Stallworth, senior pastor of Kingdom Glory Worship Assembly in Quincy, Florida, was one of those leaders who traveled to Georgia to show his support.
“I felt excited and empowered to be around people who stand for justice but I was saddened by the fact that it had to take all of this just to be heard,” he told Faithfully Magazine. “We are tired of seeing Black and Brown boys murdered like animals for the slaughter.”
Once gathered, the mass of faith leaders and their supporters formed a “Wall of Prayer” to pray and call for justice, CNN reported. Arbery’s parents also addressed the crowd, thanking supporters for showing up.
Throughout the trial, Gough has requested on several occasions to have both the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson blocked from sitting with Arbery’s family inside the courtroom.
“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,” Gough told presiding Judge Timothy Walmsley on November 11.
Gough claimed the presence of Black pastors sitting with Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones could “intimidate” the nearly all-White jury, and argued for a mistrial. Judge Walmsley denied his request.
The attorney issued an apology the next day, but that didn’t stop scores of pastors from showing up to pray as the defense team made began its closing arguments on Thursday.
African American religious leaders often come alongside Black families who have been victimized by police violence or acts of racism, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church told CNN.
“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.”
William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. and his neighbors Gregory and Travis McMichael have been charged with the murder of Arbery. If convicted, the three men could serve life sentences without the possibility parole for the charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
“This trial is a test for the American Justice System. This is a story we have heard before,” Martin Luther King III tweeted Thursday.
Related: The Killing of Ahmaud Arbery Highlights the Danger of Jogging While Black
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Pastor Tracey Stallworth as a woman. Stallworth is a man.