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Maryland

Bryant stands by call for action a year later

P. Kenneth Burns
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The Rev. Jamal Bryant, who delivered the eulogy at Freddie Gray’s funeral, says he wanted to deliver a message that spoke both to the 25-year-old’s mourning family and to an angry community.

He called the message, delivered at New Shiloh Baptist Church, just blocks from the center of rioting, “Breaking the Box.” It was based on a story in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead, but didn’t open the casket himself.  Bryant says he found both a mourning family and angry community in the narrative.

“You have two different crowds; a crowd that’s walking with Christ and a crowd who’s heading to the cemetery who have different frames of thought,” he says.

In the eulogy he said the scripture was a reference to Black America.

“Don’t expect nobody to open the door for you,” he thundered. “If they don’t open the door, kick that sucker down and get what you need. Get up.”

Bryant, a civil rights activist and pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, says he wanted to help the Gray family heal while giving some direction to those angered over Gray’s death from a broken neck suffered in the back of a police van.

The atmosphere was charged emotionally and politically.  And Bryant says he was trying to figure out which lines not to cross as things were moving.  But the way he ended his eulogy, with the protest cry of “no justice, no peace,” rubbed people the wrong way.

Bryant was told that he should not have used the “phraseology” that he still stands by a year later.  He says that for five decades the inequalities in Baltimore had been ignored; and he credits the unrest for putting Baltimore under a bigger and global microscope.

“If you would consider; had the young people not taken to the streets, we’d still have the same police commissioner,” he said. “Had they not taken to the streets, I am absolutely clear our mayor would have run for re-election.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired then Police Commissioner Anthony Batts last July amid a spike in homicides and criticism from the city’s police union of his handling of the unrest. She announced in September she would not seek re-election.

Bryant was on the streets the first night of the unrest; arm in arm with other clergy and community leaders calling for peace.  It was a moment he called surreal.

“It was really [an] out of body experience feeling like I’m in Selma, Alabama that is somewhere close to the Edmond Pettis Bridge,” he said, noting the unrest took place a month after the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

To mark the one year anniversary of Gray’s death and the unrest, Bryant held a march for unity and peace and to urge people to vote in primary elections last week.

The march from the CVS that was burned and re-opened earlier this year to the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center in Bolton Hill attracted screen stars Danny Glover and Kendrick Sampson, mayoral and city council candidates, including Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh, and Freddie Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka.

Bryant says he has been keeping busy over the last year.  After briefly entertaining a run for Congress, he started work on expanding his church’s footprint in Park Heights.  Empowerment Temple recently acquired land formerly owned by BGE.  He says he hopes to build a job training center and a place for youth activities on the site.