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Black pastors gather in Brunswick, Ga., to support Ahmaud Arbery's family

Pastors and other faith leaders from around the country gathered in front of the Glynn County, Ga., courthouse Thursday, where the trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery is ongoing. The rally is the largest demonstration in Brunswick since the trial started a month ago.

The interfaith gathering was largely in response to what some see as offensive and outrageous motions made in court by one of the defense attorneys to try to limit who can sit in the courtroom gallery, in reaction to the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson attending the trial at the invitation of the Arbery family.

"We don't want any more Black pastors coming in here ... sitting with the victim's family, trying to influence the jurors in this case," argued defense attorney Kevin Gough, who represents William "Roddie" Bryan, and who compared it to a mob trial where gang members pack the gallery in a silent threat to the jury.

Gough has repeatedly asked for a mistrial based on the presence of the iconic civil rights leaders in the courtroom, something Judge Timothy Walmsley denied, saying that Gough brought this upon himself with his "reprehensible" comments. "You need to understand, everybody, that your words in this courtroom have a lot of impact on what's going on," reprimanded Walmsley.

At the urging of Jackson and Sharpton, clergy showed up on Thursday to offer their prayers for the Arbery family from the lawn of the courthouse. With hands raised in blessing, they chanted "No matter what he say, we gonna pray anyway!"

Bobby Henderson of the local group A Better Glynn worried that the rally could strengthen the defense's arguments. "We understand that the defense has attempted to get a mistrial from the beginning," he explained. "So we want to make sure that all the good attention isn't used to give him the elements he needs to get a mistrial or a credible appeal."

Pastor Parish Brown, Bishop Jamie Johnson, and Pastor Tony Thomas drove from South Carolina to pray for the Arbery family outside the courthouse.
Liz Baker / NPR
Pastor Parish Brown, Bishop Jamie Johnson, and Pastor Tony Thomas drove from South Carolina to pray for the Arbery family outside the courthouse.

The Rev. Parish Brown, who drove down from Effingham, S.C., says it makes no sense for lawyers to try to keep pastors away from the Arbery family in their time of need. "And for him to stand before a judge in a courtroom and have the audacity to make a statement like that, I would do the body of Christ, myself, and my people a disservice if I didn't show up here," he said.

"Dad used to say, 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'" remembered Martin Luther King III, one of the rally's keynote speakers. The Rev. Jamal Bryant, of the New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., also seized on parallels to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"Thank you, dear Lord, that Brunswick is our generation's Selma, that the civil rights era is now starting over today, right here in Brunswick, Ga.," he prayed.

As the faithful gathered outside the courthouse, the defense teams for Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan rested their cases, after the prosecution's cross-examination of Travis McMichael, the only defendant who chose to testify. Closing arguments are expected to start on Monday, and then the nearly all white jury will be tasked with delivering a verdict for each of the defendants.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.