Last week, during the trial of the three white men accused of murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an attorney representing one of the defendants, Kevin Gough, voiced concern about the Rev. Al Sharpton being present in the courtroom to support the victim’s family.
Black religious leaders have long played a crucial role in shaping American law and politics.
Referring to Sharpton’s high-profile status, Gough told Judge Timothy Walmsley that Sharpton’s presence was “intimidating and it’s an attempt to pressure … or influence the jury.” He went a step further, though, and said, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here … trying to influence the jury in this case.”
Though Sharpton (the host of MSNBC’s "PoliticsNation") is not the pastor of a church, Gough's offensive remarks — and his lackluster apology — are in keeping with a common misperception that Black religious leaders should only be seen or heard from the pulpit.
Black religious leaders have long played a crucial role in shaping American law and politics. Their active involvement in civil rights cases has demonstrated their belief that they are called not just to address the spiritual needs of a congregation, but also to address the community’s social and political concerns. As Jemar Tisby, author of "How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice," told me, “Black pastors have not only represented Black people from the pulpit but also in local, state and national elected office.” Tisby added that those clergy “decided that part of their role as spiritual leaders was to serve as political leaders as well.”
But their involvement wasn’t limited to runs for public office; Black clergy have historically joined local and national efforts to challenge racist violence. In her 1895 pamphlet “A Red Record,” anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells recounts how a Rev. King from Paris, Texas, spoke out against the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith, an African American man accused of killing a white child. According to Wells, a crowd of 10,000 gathered and watched as Smith was tortured with “red-hot iron brands” for close to an hour. King tried to stop the proceedings, but he was attacked and then forced onto a train leaving town.
In 1917, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked with local Black preachers and community leaders to organize a July 28 silent protest march in New York in response to the deadly race riot in East St. Louis earlier that month. The flyer organizing the event, signed by the Rev. Chas. D. Martin, called on the community to march in protest of “Segregation, Discrimination, Disenfranchisement, LYNCHING and the host of evils that are forced on us.”
Religious organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) served as springboards for Black women’s activism. As scholar Judith Weisenfeld details in her groundbreaking book, "African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945," Black female leaders such as Pauli Murray and Addie W. Hunton viewed the YWCA as a means to engage in social causes and express their religiosity “in ways that complemented their church lives” — removed from the traditionally male-dominated Black Church. Hunton traveled to France as a member of the American Expeditionary Forces to staff Young Men’s Christian Association facilities for Black soldiers stationed there. Her experiences during the war led her to dedicate her life to advocating for peace.
It is no accident that many of the most visible activists during the civil rights movement were religious leaders.
It is no accident that many of the most visible activists during the civil rights movement were religious leaders. According to AnneMarie Mingo, an assistant professor of African American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University, “Historically, liberation-oriented Black pastors and religious leaders leveraged their relative economic independence to speak boldly through their sermons, prayers, songs and Bible studies to educate and motivate parishioners to stand and fight for their civil and human rights by forcing America to live up to its own creeds.” This is certainly true for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama when he was selected as the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association to coordinate the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ arrest. King and other clergy eventually founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 to train and assist local community activists.
And this tradition of religious leadership extends beyond the Christian faith. During the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, Malcolm X rose to prominence as a minister in the Nation of Islam, boldly condemning racism and advocating for the rights and freedom of all people. In some instances, he addressed these matters in the courtroom — like in 1962 when he testified on behalf of five Muslim prisoners in Attica Prison in New York.
Sharpton’s presence in the courtroom, therefore, was nothing out of the ordinary. He understands the significance of a multifaceted approach to religious leadership, and, not surprisingly, he ignored the defense attorney’s remark and instead called on “clergy across ecumenical lines” to join him at the courthouse.
This response is reflective of the rich tradition of Black religious leadership. The presence of Black clergy in courtrooms is rooted in American history and politics. As Mingo reminds us, Black churches and religious leaders “must continue to live up to [their] history and legacy by challenging unjust laws, being present in the lives of the oppressed, breaking their often self-imposed silence linked to concerns around the church’s tax status, [and] articulating what we mean by religious freedom.”
The defense attorney’s remarks should not distract us from the fact that Ahmaud Arbery’s parents have lost their son. They possess every right to have supporters join them in the courtroom. And the person playing that role has historically been the Black preacher.