Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo
With the release of a viral video months after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger in Georgia, religious leaders have raised their voices to ask questions about how and why he died.
On Thursday (May 7), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced it had charged two white men, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, with murder and aggravated assault in the case, more than two months after Arbery’s death in Brunswick.
There has been outrage, which grew with the release this week of the cellphone video, that there had been no arrests in the case, which is now being handled by a third prosecutor. The second, District Attorney George Barnhill, told local police: “We do not see grounds for an arrest” in the case. He later recused himself, as did the first prosecutor. The third prosecutor asked the GBI to investigate on Tuesday, and the inquiry began the next day.
According to the GBI, whose investigation is continuing, both men confronted Arbery with firearms. “During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery,” the agency said.
Hours after tweeting about the felony arrest warrants for the McMichaels, Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Arbery’s family, tweeted a birthday tribute to Arbery, who would have turned 26 on Friday.
“Happy Birthday #AhmaudArbery,” Merritt said. “You’re bravery in the face of death is humbling and inspiring. I pray the ancestors give us all the strength and courage to #fightlikeAhmaud.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, plans to host an online “call to demand justice” in honor of Arbery on Friday evening, featuring Arbery’s parents and their lawyers.
Here’s a sampling of 10 voices from religious officials, authors and clergy who, across racial and ideological lines, reacted to the video and the arrests and questioned the circumstances of Arbery’s death:
“Ahmaud Arbery’s death is akin to a modern-day lynching. Enough is enough. We demand #JusticeForAhmaud now!”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
“There is no, under any Christian vision of justice, situation in which the mob murder of a person can be morally right. … (T)he Bible tells us, from the beginning, that murder is not just an assault on the person killed but on the God whose image he or she bears. Sadly, though, many black and brown Christians have seen much of this, not just in history but in flashes of threats of violence in their own lives. And some white Christians avert their eyes — even in cases of clear injustice — for fear of being labeled ‘Marxists’ or ‘social justice warriors’ by the same sort of forces of intimidation that wielded the same arguments against those who questioned the state-sponsored authoritarianism and terror of Jim Crow.”
Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo
“I will not dig for evidence; today we are going to assume all that is true about Arbery. Because Arbery is one person in a centuries old line of Black people who must prove they are human in order to call their murders unjust. … Lynchings are still here, but so are we. They haven’t been able to destroy us. The fear hasn’t kept us from showing up, from experiencing joy, from demanding more from America.”
Andy Stanley, founder of Atlanta-based North Point Ministries
“I’ve been advised not to post about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery until I calm down a bit. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We calm down and go on about our business. This must end. Our black brothers and sisters need white advocates to bring this to an end. Count me in!”
Jemar Tisby, author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism”
“This will not be popular with some, but putting these men in cages won’t change much. These men and Ahmaud’s family need restorative justice. There needs to be healing (to the extent possible with such a crime) and not just incarceration.”
“After viewing this video, there’s one thing that should be crystal clear now to all Georgians: the authorities must expeditiously complete their investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Ahmaud Arbery and take all appropriate measures in response to what appears to be a horribly heinous crime. I am calling upon the authorities to act now; COVID-19 cannot be an excuse for injustice.”
“Georgia Muslims were dismayed and infuriated but not surprised by the video showing the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. We strongly condemn this racist act of unjustified murder, which is part of a pattern of violence rooted in the historic subjugation of African-American men and women. We join the call for the arrest of the two suspects prior to the convening of the grand jury.
“These dangerous episodes targeting the African-American community are not unique, but rather are symptomatic of the racism that instills fear and distrust within our communities. It is long past time for law enforcement to take such crimes seriously.”
“When Arbery was confronted by armed men who moved directly to block him from leaving, demanding to ‘talk,’ then Arbery was entitled to defend himself. Georgia’s ‘stand your ground law’ arguably benefits Arbery, not those who were attempting to falsely imprison him at gunpoint.
“It’s also worth remembering that the long and evil history of American lynchings features countless examples of young black men hunted and killed by white gangs who claimed their victims had committed crimes.”
“In the presence of the kind of cancerous hatred that killed #AhmaudArbery, the kind that is having a renaissance here in America, there are only two kinds of white Americans: there are white racists and there are white anti-racists.”
Pastor Florine Newberry delivers her Easter Sunday message from the doorway of Mattie Richland Baptist Church, April 12, 2020, streamed via Facebook Live in Pineview, Georgia. Video screengrab via JaQwan Davenport
When Pastor Florine Newberry of Mattie Richland Baptist Church in rural Pineview, Georgia, realized her congregation wouldn’t be able to meet in the church’s blue carpeted sanctuary due to the coronavirus pandemic, “I just saw the sheep scattering,” she said.
Many of the 45 to 50 members of Newberry’s independent church do not have computers or home access to the internet. Though some own cellphones, cellular service is often spotty in the rural flats more than two hours south of Atlanta.
Her worst fears were quieted when some parishioners took to gathering 6 feet apart in their cars on sunny Sundays to hear Newberry preach.
But once Mattie Richland Baptist became one of 46 predominantly black churches in Georgia to receive help gaining internet access from Fair Count, an organization founded to increase participation in the 2020 census in hard-to-count areas, Newberry’s great-nephew — and Sunday school teacher — said he could use his phone to livestream her sermons.
Pastor Florine Newberry. Courtesy photo
When Newberry preached her Easter sermon from the doorway of her church, her message was viewed by hundreds of people via Facebook Live thanks to the Fair Count hot spot.
“That hot spot from Fair Count, and through the blessings of God that watches over Mattie Richland, has allowed me to have peace of mind that I can still reach out to people,” said Newberry.
America’s black clergy, like their counterparts in houses of worship across the country, have heard the call to pick up the tools of Zoom, Facebook and other social media as a workaround for in-person worship and Bible study. But with issues of access and technical ability among some congregants, and a pandemic that has closed their church doors and scattered congregations, African Americans have been scrambling to sustain crucial connections to their houses of worship.
“If you look at websites, Facebook, other media, white churches are better positioned, it seems, to connect their people and to connect to their people than black churches going into this crisis,” said Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, citing data from 2018-19.
That advantage has widened the religious digital divide. A new survey from Pew Research Center shows that while 92% of evangelical Christians and 86% of mainline Protestants say their church offers streaming or recorded services online, only 73% of Protestant worshippers in the historically black tradition say they can watch religious services remotely.
Sunday school teacher JaQwan Davenport, left, works with youth on a donated laptop at Mattie Richland Baptist Church, in Pineview, Georgia, before social distancing was required to combat the coronavirus. Courtesy photo
Access to digital resources is not solely a problem in rural areas. The Rev. Boise Kimber, senior pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, has worked to get churches websites since 2016. But during the pandemic, Kimber initially chose not to use livestreaming, knowing many of his inner-city church members did not have access to a computer. His church later added Zoom as another option to reach younger members.
“I’m trying to reach individuals that support our ministry, spiritually and financially,” said Kimber. Those people, he said, are available largely by phone.
Pastor Brenda Lacy, leader of Greater Revelations Worship Center, a multicultural inner-city church in Kansas City, Missouri, said she knew her 50 members, including the elderly, could be reached via conference calls on their phones because it was how they gathered remotely for prayer calls three times a week.
“I’m not sure if every member has internet access, but they do have access to the conference line,” she said. “The only thing that has changed with that is that we’re doing our morning worship on there, we’re doing our Bible studies on there, we’re doing everything there.”
Nona Jones. Courtesy photo
Nona Jones, head of Facebook’s global faith-based partnerships, said Facebook has seen a “pretty major spike in the spiritual pages” used by faith communities in recent weeks. Sensitive to those limited to phones, Facebook has begun making available a free service that allows churches to provide a phone number for people who do not have reliable internet or strong bandwidth to view a livestream.
“The feedback we’ve heard so far, even using it in our own church, is that there’s a lot of older people who have felt connected who were feeling isolated,” said Jones, who in addition to her Facebook job is co-pastor of a church in Gainesville, Florida. “But being able to even listen to our voices has given them a sense of hope and a feeling of community.”
The elderly are most at risk and least likely to be able to link to their churches online.
“There is definitely some exclusion that’s taking place when it comes to older congregants, especially those who used to get picked up by the bus and brought into worship,” said Elonda Clay, a Ph.D. candidate in theology and religious studies who has studied the black church and technology trends.
Elonda Clay. Photo by Dirk van der Duim
Clay pointed to her 80-year-old father, a longtime member of a “small United Methodist church of 80-year-olds,” who was only able to phone into a Sunday worship conference call after someone called him to inform him the first one had occurred.
Some churches have found that improving their internet connections can also improve their spiritual connections with a younger generation. “As younger people are not going to service in the same numbers that, say, the baby boomer generation went,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convenor of the National African American Clergy Network, “streaming is the ideal way — this is pre-COVID — for reaching younger church people.”
If nothing else, the pandemic is showing many churches the power of the internet, whatever their bandwidth. Brother Marcus Tolliver of Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Chester, South Carolina, said that coronavirus has prompted a sea change in his church, which previously used its Facebook page to post daily phrases of inspiration and photos from church events. If a service was recorded, it would be distributed on DVDs or CDs.
Last week, he led his congregation of 275 in a two-night online revival, using his iPhone when the internet service proved to be poor at the church.
Brother Marcus Tolliver, bottom right, of Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, moderates a “Focusing on the Mind” panel via Zoom and Facebook Live on April 25, 2020. Video screengrab
The next day, Tolliver moderated on Zoom and Facebook a “Focusing on the Mind” panel on black churches and mental health that drew more than 2,400 views. On Sunday (April 26), the church converted its annual “pack-a-pew” service to “pack-a-page” on Facebook Live, with more than 1,000 views.
“This is definitely new territory,” said Tolliver. “We’ve learned to do things that we never thought we’d do. Some of these older preachers in the more rural communities, they’ve learned to work technology they never expected that they would have to work. They’ve learned how to have Zoom meetings with their church families, and they’ll have Bible study and they can still see each and every one of their members. Before COVID-19, that wasn’t even a thought.”
Jeanine Abrams McLean. Courtesy photo
For Georgia churches like Mattie Richland Baptist, the efforts of Fair Count, founded in Atlanta by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have shown how improving internet access for churches can be a boon to the entire community, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Jeanine Abrams McLean, vice president of Fair Count and Stacey Abrams’ sister, said the organization has established 135 internet access points using hot spots and tablets donated to churches, barbershops and community centers across Georgia, where about 20% of people have only broadband access or lack internet entirely.
Besides internet access, McLean said, the nonprofit, backed by grants from foundations and private donors, has begun providing free church management software that clergy can use to communicate with members and to facilitate online giving.
“Even if a church doesn’t have internet access, if we’re able to give it to a pastor that has internet access, then they can send out text messages to their parishioners that way,” McLean said of the program that has aided a few dozen houses of worship from Nevada to Mississippi to Illinois. She hopes to extend the service to several hundred more over the next four years.
After receiving a Fair Count hot spot, the Rev. Bo Barber II, pastor of Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fortson, a suburb of Columbus, Georgia, saw that it could help with more than the census.
The Rev. Bo Barber III, of Fortson, Georgia, speaks in Atlanta at a May 2019 “Black Men Count” event about the 2020 census. Courtesy photo
“When the schools closed, there were a number of children that needed to have access to broadband in the communities and in the area,” Barber said. Now, he explained, “our community can drive up into the parking lot” and draw connectivity from their cars. In the last few weeks, 40 families have visited the church lot.
“Knowledge is power,” said Barber. “And if you’re isolated, you’re not empowered.”
Democrats and Republicans nationwide had their eyes trained on Georgia to see whether the emerging battleground state, would elect the first black woman governor in American history or double down on the Deep South’s GOP tendencies with an acolyte of President Donald Trump.
But they’ll have to wait a little longer.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in the contest, why Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams agree it’s not over and what it means in Georgia and beyond.
KEMP LEADS AND ABSENTEES LOOM
With more than 3.8 million votes counted, Kemp stood at 50.8 percent, enough for an outright victory under a quirky Georgia law requiring a majority to win a general election without a runoff. But Abrams and Kemp agree there are absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots left to be counted.
Not surprisingly, the two rivals differ on how much that will matter.
Says Kemp: “There are votes left to count, but … make no mistake, the math is on our side to win this election.”
Abrams says the number of pending ballots is enough to push Kemp’s total below the 50 percent threshold, since a Libertarian candidate is taking about 1 percent of the vote.
“I promise you tonight we’re going to make sure that every vote is counted,” Abrams added.
The Abrams campaign estimated early Wednesday at least 97,000 early votes and mail-in ballots from key counties had not been tallied, based on its tracking. Separately, it’s not yet clear how many provisional and paper ballots were cast at polling places on Tuesday. Neither the Kemp campaign nor Secretary of State Kemp’s office — he happens to be the state’s chief elections officer — has offered its detailed data.
Abrams’ campaign estimates she’d need a net gain of almost 25,000 votes to trigger a runoff, which would be held Dec. 4.
WHY THIS RACE IS SO IMPORTANT
Abrams’ historic candidacy made this a race to watch from the start. She’s already the first black woman in U.S. history to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee. In Georgia, one of the original 13 states, she’d be the first woman, and the first non-white governor. (Yes, that means nothing but white men for 242 years.)
Beyond breaking barriers, the matchup exhibits the nation’s bitter partisan, ideological divides and underscores the cultural and racial fissures still lingering in the Deep South.
Abrams is a 44-year-old lawyer, former state legislative leader and moonlighting romance novelist who campaigns as an unabashed liberal. She promises to expand Medicaid insurance coverage and prioritize spending on public education, while endorsing tighter gun regulations and criticizing President Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration.
Kemp is a 55-year-old, two-term secretary of state who’s echoed Trump’s immigration rhetoric. He’s flaunted his guns, chain saw and pickup truck in his campaign ads. He promises to “put Georgians first,” blasts “fake news” and lambastes Abrams as a tool of “socialists” and “liberal billionaires” who “want to turn Georgia into California.”
Both nominees framed the race as a “battle for the soul” of the state — a characterization supported by Georgians voting in numbers nearing their turnout for the 2016 presidential election.
The stakes are high enough that Trump and former President Barack Obama made opposing visits within 48 hours on the final weekend. Oprah Winfrey, the media icon who typically sits out politics, came to campaign for Abrams.
All this plays out in a Georgia on the cusp of becoming a true battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. As governor, Kemp would be Trump’s biggest cheerleader in a state the president won by 5 percentage points in 2016. Abrams, as Georgia’s chief executive, would be among the most coveted endorsers in what’s likely to be a crowded Democratic field of aspiring presidents.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The counting was to continue Wednesday and perhaps beyond. In a race already fraught with racial innuendos surrounding the ballot access and voting system that Kemp runs, that process will likely be neither calm, nor quiet.
Abrams has called Kemp “an architect of voter suppression” for the way he’s managed voter registration rules and elections. In outlining the possibilities of a runoff, the campaign attributed an apparent rise in provisional and paper ballots to a shortage of reliable voting machines, and blamed Kemp for the lack of preparation.
Kemp has insisted he’s done his job, and argued that Abrams wants to help noncitizens vote illegally. He cited a speech in which she listed “undocumented” people as being part of her coalition.
But Kemp also had to admit within days of Tuesday’s voting that the online voter registration system he oversees was vulnerable to hackers. When a whistleblower alerted a voting rights lawyer who alerted the FBI and Kemp’s office of an apparent weakness, Kemp accused the Georgia Democratic Party, without offering evidence, of trying to tamper with the system.
Given that environment, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Kemp supporters would accept the legitimacy of a runoff or whether Abrams’ supporters would accept an outright Kemp victory.
Last-minute legal decisions, a racist robocall and a protester wearing a giant chicken suit holding a sign that reads “too chicken to debate.”
These are the scenes playing out amid the final furious days of the hotly contested and historic race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
A robocall apparently from a white supremacist group is injecting racism directly into the race, which has already been fraught with a race-laden debate over ballot access and voter suppression. Abrams would be the first black female governor in U.S. history. Kemp, who oversees elections as Georgia’s secretary of state, vehemently denies charges that he’s used his office to make it harder for minorities to vote.
Abrams and Kemp are both condemning an automated telephone call filled with racist and anti-Semitic statements. The call, sent to an unknown number of Georgians, impersonates Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire media titan who came to Georgia on Thursday to support Abrams.
The robocall says it was paid for by The Road to Power, a group organized by Scott Rhodes of Idaho. He has been linked to several other racist robocalls, including a recent effort in Florida, where Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum would become the first black governor in his state’s history.
Kemp issued a statement calling the tactic “vile” and “contrary to the highest ideals of our state and country,” and condemning “any person or organization that peddles this type of unbridled hate and unapologetic bigotry.”
The Abrams camp likewise blasted the move but took a shot at Kemp and his highest profile supporter, President Donald Trump, who is coming to Georgia to campaign Sunday. A top Abrams aide said both Kemp and Trump have contributed to a poisonous atmosphere, and that Kemp has been silent on previous racially loaded attacks on Abrams.
“These automated calls are being sent into homes just days before President Trump arrives, reminding voters exactly who is promoting a political climate that celebrates this kind of vile, poisonous thinking,” said Abrams’ spokeswoman Abigail Collazo.
Abrams sidestepped the issue Saturday in brief public remarks as she greeted voters at an Atlanta shopping complex along with her local congressman, civil rights icon John Lewis.
“Georgia has long been on a path of change and evolution,” Abrams said. But she also said the election is about issues like expanding Medicaid insurance and focusing state spending on public education, job training and small business startups.
“I’m the only candidate with a plan to get that done and to do that without vitriol, without vilifying people,” she added.
Lewis, the 78-year-old congressman who as a young man was severely beaten by police as he fought for voting rights in the Jim Crow South, put Georgia’s choice in the broadest context: “This young lady is playing a major role in helping liberate all of us, liberate the state of Georgia, liberate the South, liberate America.”
Kemp did not address the robocalls at his only scheduled campaign stop Saturday at a Cuban restaurant in a diverse north-Atlanta suburb.
Kemp told the packed crowd of supporters that the race for governor was a simple choice: one between continued economic prosperity under Republican leadership, or a turn to “socialism” under Democrats.
Kemp said the election was about “this generation and generations to come and the kind of state that we leave them.” He then blasted Abrams’ policy pitches on health care and education.
The Kemp event was also hit by a number of protesters. Two men protesting Kemp’s immigration policy while Kemp was onstage were forcibly removed from the restaurant.
As a TV crew from MSNBC tried to film the hecklers being removed, a Kemp supporter physically blocked their path and the view of their lens.
And someone out front was wearing a giant chicken suit holding a sign that reads “too chicken to debate,” alluding to Kemp withdrawing from a debate scheduled Sunday in favor of appearing in Macon with President Donald Trump.
Much of the final stretch of the race was consumed by a bitter battle over race and access to the polls.
Tensions grew after an Associated Press report in early October that more than 53,000 voter applications — nearly 70 percent of them from black applicants — were on hold with Kemp’s office ahead of the election.
Many of the applications were flagged for failing to pass the state’s “exact match” verification process, which requires that identification information on voter registration applications precisely match information already on file.
Kemp’s office says that eligible voters on the “pending” list can still vote if they bring a proper ID that substantially matches their registration information. He called the controversy “manufactured.”
But critics say county officials aren’t always trained to make the proper determination and the system can be particularly hard to navigate for recently naturalized citizens.
In response to a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups, a judge on Friday ruled the state unfairly burdens about 3,100 possible voters whose registration was flagged for citizenship issues.
She ruled that Georgia must immediately start allowing poll managers — not just deputy registrars — to clear flagged voters who show proof of citizenship.
In a statement, Kemp said the lawsuit forced the state “to waste time and taxpayer dollars for the judge to tell us to do something that we already do.”
In the final days in one of the nation’s hottest governor’s races, Oprah Winfrey and President Donald Trump, as well as former Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter and Vice President Mike Pence, are trying to put their imprint on the Georgia election.
Winfrey joins Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams for two town hall-style events Thursday, the same day that Pence travels to the state for several rallies with Republican Brian Kemp.
Trump and Obama will follow with their party’s candidate over the next three days. Carter, an Abrams supporter and former Georgia governor, garnered significant attention already this week with a personal plea that Kemp resign as secretary of state, Georgia’s chief elections official, to ensure public confidence in the results of what’s expected to be a close race.
The blitz underscores the high stakes in one of the defining contests of next week’s midterms, as Abrams vies to become the first black female governor in American history, while Kemp tries to maintain the GOP’s dominance in a state Democrats believe is on the cusp of becoming a presidential battleground.
The appearance by Winfrey, among the world’s wealthiest and most famous black women, is a significant coup for Abrams, who needs to maximize her support from nonwhite voters but also from liberal white women. All of those demographics overlap with Winfrey’s fan base, and she will hit them all with events in Republican-leaning Cobb County and heavily Democratic DeKalb County, both within miles of downtown Atlanta.
Though sometimes mentioned as a 2020 presidential candidate, Winfrey has demurred on her intentions. Her most visible foray into electoral politics was as an outspoken supporter of Obama, her fellow Chicagoan, when he first won the White House in 2008.
Trump’s appearance may claim as a casualty the last debate scheduled between Kemp and Abrams.
The two campaigns had agreed weeks ago to a debate at 5 p.m. Sunday in the studios of Atlanta’s WSB-TV. But Kemp’s campaign said the president’s schedule takes precedence, and he’s coming to Macon, about 100 miles south of Atlanta, to hold a campaign rally with Kemp at 4 p.m.
Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, says the debate is off because Kemp backed out. Kemp adviser Ryan Mahoney says his candidate is willing to find another time slot, but Groh-Wargo says Abrams is booked through Tuesday’s election.
Multiple polls show a statistical dead heat between Kemp and Abrams, with a low percentage of undecided voters remaining. There’s a possibility of a December runoff, given that Libertarian Ted Metz also is on the ballot and Georgia’s requirement that the winner garner a majority of the votes.
That could mean that events that energize the base, like a rally with Trump or Obama, could carry more weight than a debate less than 48 hours before Election Day.
Both candidates have run consistent appeals to their respective bases. Kemp has embraced Trump and echoed the president’s hard-line policies on immigration, and he’s focused much of his campaigning in the state’s more conservative pockets beyond metro Atlanta.
Visits from Trump and Pence — and the location of those events — illustrate that strategy.
While Abrams has touted her experience working with Republicans as minority leader in the Georgia legislature, her positions on health care, education spending, criminal justice and gun regulations make her an unapologetic liberal. She’s openly courting Democratic-leaning voters who have largely sat out midterm elections in the past, arguing it’s a better path to victory than trying to coax crossover votes from older white voters who abandoned Democrats.
Obama will appear with Abrams on Friday at a cluster of historically black colleges near downtown Atlanta.