A Clarion Call to Brunswick
What does it take to get Black pastors to show up for Ahmaud Arbery's family? A racist comment in court telling them to stay away.
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — If you wonder how connected politics and religion can be in Atlanta’s Black community, consider Pastor Lee May.
May has always been a man of the cloth. He was an elder at the famed megachurch New Birth Missionary Baptist before taking a seat on the DeKalb County commission. After a fraught stint as interim chief executive officer for the county, he left public office entirely to lead Transforming Faith Church in Decatur.
When an attorney defending the killers of Ahmaud Arbery argued that there should be no more “Black pastors” in court, it was as though he were demanding that the courtroom be filled with Black pastors. One has to wonder if the attorney, Kevin Gough, deliberately meant to provoke the African American religious community as a defense tactic … since nothing else he’s doing seems to be working.
About 500 pastors took a conference call with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on Tuesday to coordinate their appearance at the trial in Brunswick. It wasn’t a Brunswick pastor running that call. Lee May led the conversation, explaining the value of message discipline as a preemptive defense against anyone who might be more inclined to use their appearance to disrupt the trial or chase clout.
The Glynn County courthouse grounds flooded with sea of cufflinks and tailored three-piece suits. It felt like I was watching a revival or a college reunion. I would see heads bowed in a circle, thinking at first that people had begun an impromptu prayer only to see that they were craning their heads down at their phones together, meticulously swapping phone numbers and social media contacts.
At one point, an announcer had to keep shooing people away from the press conference area, directing participants to stand on slips of paper with their names on them. Placement for the cameras had been carefully negotiated before Sharpton took to the podium.
Mayor Jason Lary of Stonecrest attended the impromptu conclave in a new role: journalist for the MVP TV network. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this network is about. Annette Davis Johnson, a perennial African American conservative political candidate, has recently been reporting for this outfit, and apparently recruited Lary as well.
A solid third of the people on the courthouse steps yesterday were from the Atlanta area, with Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant of New Birth front and center. Bryant led the assembly from the courthouse steps in a strident prayer describing Brunswick as “our generation’s Selma” and a place of renewal for the fight for civil rights.
Corralling activists of any kind is a longstanding challenge in the civil rights movement. Consider Porchse Miller, a leading community activist in Atlanta. I ran into her on the steps of the Georgia capitol last week. Miller described Gough’s comments as a “slap in the face and a racist statement,” and that she planned to march in Brunswick on Thursday.
Miller led chants on the courthouse grounds and stood behind Sharpton on the courthouse steps Thursday. And she did lead a march. But none of that was by the design of the pastors aligned with the National Action Network; they assiduously rejected the idea of loud demonstrations out of fear of creating a disruption to the trial and grounds, however spurious they may be, for Gough to call for a mistrial.
“We as pastors – Black, white and any other faiths as well – wanted to come together in unison to pray. This is a prayer vigil by the pastors,” May said. “We’re not here to protest. We’re not here for any civil disobedience. We believe that prayer will make a difference … We don’t want to cause any kind of trouble to change the trajectory of this trial.”