At one point during the march in downtown Princeton, the line of people stretched all the way from Nassau Street down Witherspoon Street, across Paul Robeson Place, beyond the Arts Council of Princeton.
Almost 400 people marched from the Mt. Pisgah AME Church on Witherspoon Street to Tiger Park on Palmer Square, and another 100 or more joined them at the square on Wednesday night, the one-week anniversary of the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The gathering was the largest vigil at Tiger Park that residents recall over the last two decades.
The interfaith group that included Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths sang spirituals and songs from the Civil Rights era together. Some marchers carried signs with quotes from the Bible, sayings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the messages “All lives matter”, “Stop the hate” and “Remembering the nine.”
The marchers were united in their grief, their calls for justice, and their demand for an end to racism, hate crimes, and gun violence in the United States.
“We stand together in unity as a community of love,” said the Rev. Robert Moore of the Coalition for Peace Action. “Red and yellow, black and white, we are all precious in God’s sight.”
The prayer vigil was organized by Mt. Pisgah AME Church and co-sponsored by the Princeton Clergy Association, and the Coalition for Peace Action.
The Rev. Deborah Brooks said the murder of nine church members at the historic Emanuel AME Church during their Bible study was one of the most horrendous acts the country has ever seen.
“Our first order of business is to name what this was,” Brooks said. “It was a racist act. It was not domestic terrorism.”
Qareeb Bashir, the imam of the Islamic Center of Ewing, said everyone needs to work for change.
“It is our responsibility as human beings. We need to speak out. Silence is complicity,” he said. “This is not a Christian situation. It’s mot a Muslim situation, it’s not a Jewish situation. It’s a human situation and we need to work together.”
Tracy Troxel, a pastor at Stone Hill Church of Princeton, talked about his experience visiting Emanuel AME Church in Charleston over the weekend with a group from his church. It’s not the first time the church has experienced violence. The church participated in organizing a slave revolt in 1822. The plot created hysteria throughout the South. Church members were murdered, the church was burnt down, and in 1834 all black churches were banned.
“Now it’s the same old story. We’ve got a problem in this country, and we’re all part of it, and it’s going to take all of us to fix it,” Troxel said. “We are all messed up. We don’t love each other all that well.”
Stone Hill member Antonio Bellamy told the crowd about an encounter he had in Charleston with a woman who was in her late 70s. The two had a deep conversation, bonded, and the woman apologized for the racism whites have shown against blacks.
Moore said Americans don’t have difficult conversations about race because it is easier to stay in a comfort zone.
“That needs to change,” he said.
Brooks said guns needs to be taken out of the hands of people who would commit such horrible acts, so that the violence can not occur.
“If that young man didn’t have a .45 caliber pistol, he would not have been able to kill nine people,” Moore added. “We are deluding ourselves if we think that guns have nothing to do with it.”
The group joined together in prayer several times during the service, praying for justice, and for comfort for the families of the victims in Charleston.
One by one, a candle was lit for each victim as their name and age were read aloud.
As sunset came and the service came to a close, candles were lit among the crowd as those gathered sang “We Shall Overcome.”