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Amid backlash, some black clergy defend, deny that they will endorse or meet with Trump

A protester is removed by security as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop on Nov. 21 in Birmingham, Ala. (Eric Schultz/Associated Press)

An announcement by Donald Trump’s campaign that he would be endorsed Monday by several black evangelicals has set off a holy war of words on social media between some of the clergy members and critics who noted that the billionaire businessman had only days ago defended the beating of an African American protester at a campaign rally. The Trump campaign canceled a press conference that had been set up to tout the group's support.

Some of the pastors now say they never intended to endorse Trump, only to attend a meeting to talk with the candidate who is leading the field for the Republican presidential nomination. Others now say they won’t even attend the meeting in New York.

News of the meeting came less than a week after an African American man who began chanting “Black lives matter” at a Trump rally in Birmingham, Ala., was punched and kicked by white people in the audience. “Get him the hell out of here!” Trump shouted from the stage as security guards escorted the man from the arena. When the incident was mentioned the next day during an interview on "Fox News Sunday," Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” Later that day, he retweeted a graphic that incorrectly showed that black people are responsible for most killings of white people.

[Trump on rally protester: 'Maybe he should have been roughed up']

The incident and Trump’s response to it left some incredulous that a large group of  black religious leaders would endorse him.

“Mr. Trump routinely uses overtly divisive and racist language on the campaign trail,” read an open letter on, signed by more than 130 clergy members, religious scholars and activists. “We are concerned that your choice to meet with Mr. Trump, particularly in such a visible way, will not only de-radicalize the Black prophetic political tradition, but will also give Trump the appearance of legitimacy among those who follow your leadership and respect your position as clergy.

"What theology do you believe Mr. Trump possesses when his politics are so clearly anti-Black?" read the letter, which was one of the the milder rebukes aimed at the group.

“Prostitutes for Trump … don’t let black pulpit become a pole,” tweeted the Rev. Jamal Bryant, of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, one of the more outspoken critics of the meeting. Bryant delivered the eulogy for Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in April as a result of a severe spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody. He also walked the streets and urged calm after Gray's death set off several days of protests and rioting in Baltimore.

The Rev. Darrell Scott, an Ohio-based pastor who was an organizer of the event, called Bryant’s tweet “insulting, demeaning and misogynistic, to say the least.” He also took to Twitter to call out some clergy members who protested that their names had been associated with the event without their permission. Scott also expressed exasperation with the pushback.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. On Thursday, it announced a news conference at which "Mr. Trump will be joined by a coalition of 100 African American Evangelical pastors and religious leaders who will endorse the GOP frontrunner after a private meeting at Trump Tower." By Sunday afternoon, the campaign sent an e-mail to reporters slightly recasting the event: "On Monday, Mr. Trump will host an informational meet and greet with many members of the Coalition of African American Ministers. This is not a press event, but a private meeting, after which, a number of attendees are expected to endorse Mr. Trump’s campaign for President. This is closed to press and therefore no media credentials will be provided."

Several of the invited clergy members went on social media over the past two days to say that they either will not endorse Trump or will not attend the event.

A Facebook page associated with Bishop Clarence E. McClendon posted this disclaimer on Friday: “Bishop McClendon was INVITED to attend Monday's meeting and his name was used as an invitee, but had made no plans to attend the meeting and indeed will NOT be in attendance. The meeting was presented not as a meeting to endorse but as a meeting to engage in dialogue.” McClendon appears on the Oxygen network’s reality series “Preachers of L.A.”

In other instances, the pastors' followers came to their defense.

Bishop Victor Couzens, pastor of the Inspirational Baptist Church-City of Destiny in Forest Park, Ohio, chastised Baltimore's Bryant for his harsh criticism and explained his decision to attend the meeting on Facebook:

I want to personally hear from Mr. Trump about his agenda for mass incarceration, gentrification, recidivism, access to economic opportunity for minorities, religious profiling of Muslims, police brutality, gun control, racial profiling and immigration. I want to look him in the face and ask him about the divisive tone of his campaign.

Cindy Trimm, an author and speaker, wrote on her Facebook page that she will attend the meeting “for a greater cause — unity.” She added: “To emphasize, I am not attending this meeting on Monday to endorse any candidate. To address accusations head on, I have NOT been compensated for attending this meeting. I cannot be bought and my vote is not up for sale.”

Scott, whose wife, Belinda Scott, is a cast member in Lifetime’s reality series “Preach,” told the Daily Beast that he will endorse Trump. Scott introduced Trump at a rally in early October in Atlanta, where several dozen religious figures, most of them black, stood with the candidate for a photo op.

Jenna Johnson contributed to this post.