Just as they did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the July 20 demonstrations in more than 100 cities around the nation to protest the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman on charges that he murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, many ministers were in the forefront of protests at federal buildings in their communities.

They started off by standing with the Rev. Al Sharpton who announced plans to contest “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and 28 other states. More than 20 Black clergy leaders joined Sharpton last week in front of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. to express their concerns about the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense statutes and the dangerous message that the Zimmerman verdict carried.

Sharpton said if we don’t change the “Stand Your Ground” laws, we risk having more Trayvon Martin cases, because the law emboldens people.

“There is a license through the George Zimmerman verdict that any White male that feels threatened can shoot a Black boy and be justified,” said the Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative. “We’re going to have to teach our boys how to be safe. We’re going to have to teach our young boys what the law says are their rights and how to protect themselves and using a buddy system. We’re going to have to do something significant to protect our young boys.”

Other Black pastors said it’s not just our young Black men that need an education, but also anyone that believes that the election of President Obama ushered in a new, post-racial chapter in American society.

“When people believe that race is not a factor in the Trayvon Martin case, when people believe that class and culture are not in this case, there is some serious education that needs to be done,” said the Rev. Lisa Jenkins, pastor of Saint Matthews Baptist Church in Harlem.

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Md., said many people fooled themselves into believing that now that we have a Black president, being Black is no longer an issue.

“That’s very far from the truth,” said Bryant.

Rev. L.B. West, pastor of the Mount Airy Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., said Black clergy members have always played critical leadership roles in shaping local, state, and national dialogue surrounding social justice and civil rights issues. West added that it was also critical for their congregations to see that they also struggled with the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. West said that he was personally angry that a young Black boy, that did nothing wrong, could lose his life, and no one is held accountable.

“It’s important for people to see that even spiritual people can have anger and it’s a righteous anger,” said West. The District pastor added that the anger surrounding the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial needed to be channeled into constructive acts instead of destructive ones.

Sharpton’s National Action Network organized “Justice for Trayvon” vigils in 100 cities. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, joined Sharpton for the vigil and rally in New York City, N.Y.

Even though it’s important to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin, the Black pastors wanted to ensure that this tragic moment would not be lost to history.

Bryant said the laws and the climate that catapulted this case onto the international stage need to be addressed.

“I don’t want us to get so caught in the personality that we miss the principle,” said Bryant. “The principle is unequal sentencing and other in the judicial system. There are 30 states under the banner of ‘stand your ground.’ It’s bigger than George Zimmerman. He’s just the representation of the principle of stand your ground. So, the focus has to be much bigger than that.”

Working with the Florida state legislators, the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council helped craft the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005. The law basically extended the “Castle doctrine” to the streets, allowing people in what they feel is a life-threatening situation outside of his home to defend themselves with deadly force, rather than retreat.

According to In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and public contracting, “ALEC plays an important role of providing corporations with valuable and unfettered access to state legislators. ALEC works with its members to draft model bills that state legislators can introduce and push in their states.”

The watchdog group said that ALEC eventually dismantled the task force that helped Florida state legislators craft its “Stand Your Ground” law, after coming under fire for also promoting controversial voter suppression laws.

During a national pastors’ conference in Miami, Fla., this week, Sharpton addressed a number of key issues that came to light during the George Zimmerman trial, including ALEC’s involvement in shaping “Stand Your Ground” laws across the nation. Even though, many of the pastors present at the news conference last week hinted at boycotting companies that financially support ALEC, no specific plans had been developed at that time.

The Black pastors pushed back on the notion that Black leaders are simply fanning racial flames instead of addressing the crime and gun violence that claims the lives of thousands of young Black males in our nation’s largest cities.

“All across the country in urban centers and cities across the country there have been people raising their voices around violence. In New York City, in Chicago, in Philadelphia, it’s not just one time,” said the Rev. Michael Walrond, senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. “Because of the national scene and the national view of the Trayvon Martin case any reaction we have to it, any engagement we have with it, is going to have larger-than-life proportions.”

Walrond added that organizations, across the country have been dealing with violence in the Black community. Unfortunately, those smaller movements just don’t make it into the newspapers.

Bryant’s Empowerment Temple will host a gun buy-back program on Aug. 6.
The Rev. Frederick Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, said it’s unfair to point fingers at the young men who are the victims and perpetrators of most of the crime in our communities, without pointing a finger at those who create the insufferable conditions that force those young men to make tough choices.

“In darkness, crimes will be committed,” said Haynes. “You just don’t indict those that commit the crimes you also go after those who cause the darkness. The darkness is poverty, the darkness is a lack of options, the lack of opportunities, the darkness is a lack of a quality education and until we address the darkness, crimes will be committed.”

Haynes continued: “We do our part in terms of mentoring our young men and showing them a better way, but if they do not have options, because of economic, educational, political and social injustice, then the sad reality is that there’s darkness that will be created, where the crimes will be committed.”


Freddie Allen

NNPA Washington Correspondent