Murder convictions of three men Wednesday for the shotgun-killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, is a major victory for justice in America that nearly brought the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers to tears.
Although video evidence showed Arbery, an unarmed Black man jogging through a white neighborhood, was killed because he was Black, the guilty verdicts were not guaranteed, said Rivers, pastor of Liberty Hill’s Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
“This is still America,” said Rivers, a vice president with the National Action Network. He was among some 300 faith leaders who traveled to Brunswick to stand in solidarity with Arbery’s family.
After deliberating for about 10 hours a nearly all-white jury found Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, guilty on 23 counts in Arbery’s death on Feb. 23, 2020. The armed McMichaels, in their pickups, pursued the 25-year-old Arbery running through the community as Bryan joined the chase in his pickup, capturing it on his cellphone video when Travis McMichael killed Arbery. Travis McMichael testified he thought Arbery was running from a burglary, and he shot him in self-defense.
The killing attracted nationwide attention as yet another example of unjust treatment of people of African descent. In Charleston, it also drew interest because Brunswick lies within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida.
Rivers called Arbery’s death a murder lynching. The defendants, however, argued they were making a citizen’s arrest under an old law that allows “any white man to stop any Black man to make him explain his presence and explain his reason for being present,” Rivers said. “That citizen’s arrest law came out of South Carolina as a slave-catcher law.”
That law, the Negro Act of 1740, was passed by South Carolina’s colonial government, after the Stono Rebellion, said Mount Pleasant historian and activist Michael Allen. “This act barred freedom of assembly of African Americans. And more egregious, this act gave white men the power and authority to arrest, detain, hunt or kill Black folks whom they felt were a threat or danger.”
Arbery’s murder and the recent Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdicts in the killing of two Black Lives Matter supporters and the wounding of a third man in Wisconsin are also a result of attitudes that imminent from this colonial-era law, Allen said.
“Unfortunately, most South Carolinians or Americans are unfamiliar with this act or the ongoing efforts by some Americans to follow the edicts of this act,” Allen added.
Two days after Rittenhouse’s acquittal Justin Hunt, leader of Stand as One, led about a dozen protesters in a rally and march in downtown Charleston. He also makes a connection with Arbery’s death with the Negro Act of 1740. But he added that other limitations for Black people in the act reverberates today.
“The next restriction was for slaves to raise food,” Hunt said. “Today I see this as the ability to develop and create independent substantial resources making us non-dependent of others who exploit us. Today, this is something we as (Black) people must learn to control our wealth, have the power of the dollar to collectively invest in land (and) businesses.”