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.
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.