BRUNSWICK, Ga. — More than 100 Black pastors, along with Jewish rabbis and other spiritual leaders, stood alongside the family of Ahmaud Arbery outside the Glynn County courthouse Thursday afternoon following repeated attempts by a defense attorney to have high-profile clergy removed from the courtroom.
Defense attorney Kevin Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan in the murder trial of three white men charged in Arbery’s killing, has made repeated attempts to exclude “high-profile members of the African American community” from the courtroom, saying their presence was “intimidating” the jury.
Gough’s words became a clarion call for Black clergy across the country to converge on Brunswick in a show of spiritual solidarity. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and other prominent civil rights figures sat in the courtroom Thursday and gathered for a prayer vigil, press conference and march.
“We are here today to pray for this family to have strength,” Sharpton said. “We know the pain that they struggle. It’s the same pain that Emmitt Till’s mother struggled. The same pain Trayvon Martin’s mother struggled. It’s a lonely pain. But I want them to have the comfort that people came all around the world.”
Sharpton added: “I’ve been to trials for 40 years with police involved, and they pack the courtroom with uniformed police and nobody ever said that’s intimidation. So if this lawyer sets a precedent with us, then he sets a precedent that we can judge whoever’s in a courtroom anywhere in the United States.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, thanked the clergy for their support.
“God will put people in your path to help you. You are the people for my family and I, and I want to say thank you,” Cooper-Jones said.
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The gathering Thursday came as the murder trial of father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and the neighbor, Bryan, was nearing its conclusion. The three men are charged with murder and other crimes in Arbery’s killing on Feb. 23, 2020. They were arrested two months later, after cellphone video of the killing was released.
Prosecutors called dozens of witnesses over eight days, and the defense rested its case Thursday after two days of testimony from seven witnesses. Closing statements were expected Monday.
Tensions over members of the clergy in the courtroom arose last week. Sharpton and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, were in Brunswick last Wednesday to attend the proceedings and hold a press conference and prayer vigil, where Sharpton called Arbery’s killing “a lynching in the 21st century.”
The next day, Gough took issue with Sharpton’s presence, arguing he was worried about “political interests” entering the courtroom.
“Obviously, there’s only so many pastors they (the family) can have,” Gough said, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here, or any Jesse Jackson or whoever was in here earlier this week.” He later apologized for the remark.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley refused to bar members of the public from the courtroom. He took the same stance again Monday when he denied Gough’s request to remove the Rev. Jesse Jackson from the courtroom, and again Thursday when Gough raised the issue for a third time.
The judge called Gough’s comments last week “reprehensible.”
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As scores of people turned out Thursday, volunteers served food to the crowd. The Rev. Da’Henri Thurmond Sr., pastor of St. Paul CME Church in Savannah, said he came to Brunswick after hearing from Jackson. The pastor said Gough’s comments were “an affront to all of us.”
Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta, led the gathering in an impassioned prayer.
“Thank you, dear Lord, that Brunswick is our generation’s Selma,” he said, palms raised. “The civil rights era is now starting over today right here in Brunswick, Georgia. God, we’re not talking to the judge. We’re talking to the king of kings.”
Later, Jackson made his way to the podium with the help of a cane. He was flanked by Martin Luther King III, the son of the man he stood beside on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel more than 50 years ago.
King said that he was trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
“While I’m not a preacher, there is a ministry that exists,” he said. “And part of that ministry is that whenever you see injustice, you must stand up. Dad used to say, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”
King added: “It only brings a few good men to bring change. I saw that through the leadership of my father and then my mother many years after my father had been killed. We are going to keep coming back until justice is served for this family.”
Contributing: N’dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY; Raisa Habersham, Savannah Morning News.