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A decade after Trayvon Martin’s killing, modern civil rights movement pushes on

His family has spent the years working to ensure his memory doesn’t fade.
Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, and mother, Sybrina Fulton, speak during the annual Trayvon Martin Foundation Peace Walk and Peace Talk at Ives Estate Park on Feb. 5. Local elected officials and artists attended the event to remember Trayvon on what would have been his 27th birthday, 10 years after his death.
Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, and mother, Sybrina Fulton, speak during the annual Trayvon Martin Foundation Peace Walk and Peace Talk at Ives Estate Park on Feb. 5. Local elected officials and artists attended the event to remember Trayvon on what would have been his 27th birthday, 10 years after his death. [ PEDRO PORTAL | Miami Herald ]
Published Feb. 22, 2022|Updated Feb. 23, 2022

Sybrina Fulton is exhausted.

What would have been her son’s 27th birthday just passed, the anniversary of his killing is days away, and everyone wants a piece of her. People magazine. Good Morning America. CNN. New York magazine.

By the time she arrived at Hollywood’s Highly Unique Studio for more interviews, Fulton had already answered question after question about how she feels, what can be done, and what the future holds for America 10 years after Trayvon Martin was gunned down at 17 by a neighborhood watchman.

Fulton has spent much of the last decade ensuring that Trayvon’s memory doesn’t fade by organizing peace walks, creating a group of grieving mothers and becoming the voice for the son who could no longer speak for himself. She has also attended the 2020 funeral of George Floyd after he was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer and spoken with Ahmaud Arbery’s mother after white men chased him down and shot him.

“It seems like we’re taking two steps forward and two steps back,” says Fulton, her frustration quickly shifting to determination.

“I want people to think about what they’re seeing. You cannot just like something on social media and say ‘OK, I’m doing my part,’ " she says. “I can’t tell you what to do, but I encourage you to do something.”

Although Trayvon’s death launched a modern civil rights movement that has forced America to more directly confront racism and the lasting effects of slavery, the growing list of Black men and women wrongly killed shows that, a full decade later, much work remains to be done.

“We have gotten through the infancy of the movement, but now it’s time to build institutionally,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, an organization born from Trayvon’s death and his killer’s acquittal. “It’s time to make sure our tree takes root.”

‘Being Black in America still comes at a great risk’

The night of February 26, 2012, is forever etched into Florida’s history books.

While staying with his father in the Central Florida city of Sanford, Trayvon went to grab snacks from 7-Eleven around 6:30 p.m. As he walked back to the home of his father’s then-fiancée, a 28-year-old neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, thought the hoodied teen looked suspicious.

Zimmerman followed Trayvon — against the recommendations of a 911 operator. A confrontation ensued and Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon in the chest with a 9mm pistol.

George Zimmerman.
George Zimmerman.

Trayvon’s death — and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal for second-degree murder in July 2013 — reverberated from Miami-Dade, where he lived with his mother and attended Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High, to the sports world and the White House. LeBron James and other athletes used their platforms to protest. Then-President Barack Obama said that, if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.

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U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, whose district includes the Miami Gardens home where Trayvon lived, compared the killing to one of America’s arguably most infamous lynchings.

“It was kind of reminiscent of Emmett Till,” Wilson said, referring to the 14-year-old whose 1955 Mississippi murder made him a civil rights icon. “It had a lot to do with the audacity of Zimmerman and was a classic case of racial profiling.”

Activists like François Alexandre, who became involved in politics after he said police cracked his eye socket during the Miami Heat’s 2013 championship celebration, draw a straight line from lynchings to the deadly 1979 beating of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of Metro-Dade police and the murder of Arbery.

“When you can highlight Trayvon Martin and not remember it’s connected and has everything to do with Emmett Till, you forget the past,” said Alexandre, the CEO of Konscious Kontraktors, a community initiative focused on eliminating climate gentrification. “You only talk about Trayvon in a five-to-10-year span, then next thing you know, Trayvon’s forgotten about the same way Arthur McDuffie was forgotten about.”

As Fulton writes in “Trayvon: Ten Years Later,” an essay published this month: “Being Black in America still comes at a great risk.”

‘There’s so much working against us’

Tracy Martin lives with that risk every day, not just as Trayvon’s father but as a Black man in America.

“Every day is a constant reminder that Trayvon is not here with us, that he was taken away from us, wrongfully,” Martin told the Miami Herald recently during an interview at Washington Park in Hollywood.

As he spoke, whistles and thumping shoulder pads could be heard in the background. Martin has coached football for years — he even coached his “best friend” Trayvon, he says — because of the many life lessons the game can teach, like never getting too high or too low.

“It’s not just about getting mental help over the loss of my son, it’s about hitting that mental reset button as a Black man in America because there’s so much working against us,” Martin explained.

That can be seen in a multitude of areas.

A Washington Post investigation of police shootings across America continues to find that Black people are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white people. EdBuild, a nonprofit that analyzed disparities in school funding, recently found that school districts in majority nonwhite communities annually receive more than $20 billion less than their white counterparts. And according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Black Americans experience higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

These issues don’t exist in silos, the same way Martin knows his son’s death isn’t an isolated incident.

“We’re not just talking about Trayvon Martin,” Martin said. “We’re talking about countless and countless of young Black and brown boys and girls (who experienced) injustices that haven’t been pulled to the forefront. If I gave up on fighting for Trayvon, I’m giving up everything. I’m giving up on the Black community.”

Sybrina Fulton, right, and Tracy Martin, mother and father of Trayvon Martin, meet with the press in 2015.
Sybrina Fulton, right, and Tracy Martin, mother and father of Trayvon Martin, meet with the press in 2015. [ PETER ANDREW BOSCH | Miami Herald ]

The Trayvon Martin Foundation emerged as a result. Headed by Martin and Fulton, the nonprofit does a bit of everything — from funding the funerals of children lost to gun violence to hosting peace walks. The foundation’s main mission centers around uplifting Trayvon’s name for the purpose of spurring broader changes in the Black community.

“We’re trying to switch the narrative of how America views us as men and women,” Martin said.

‘We have a lot of people to convince’

Back in 1955, when Mamie Till-Mobley decided to hold an open-casket funeral for her son Emmett, she wanted the world to see that no one was safe from the horrors of racism.

“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son,” Till-Mobley later said. “When something happened to the Negroes in the South, I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”

Much of the work Fulton and Martin have done through the Trayvon Martin Foundation has been for a similar purpose: to inform people of the dangers of silence. The interviews, the speeches, the events — everything they do always goes back to the fact that their son should still be here.

Trayvon “was cheated out of at least 50 years of life,” Martin said. “Even though we didn’t get the outcome we would’ve loved to get during the (Zimmerman) court proceedings, we weren’t going to let the acquittal of the person who killed my son, let that be the last of it or define who Trayvon was.”

Trayvon Martin attended high school in Miami-Dade County before he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford. Miami-Dade is naming a street after him near his former school, Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High.
Trayvon Martin attended high school in Miami-Dade County before he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford. Miami-Dade is naming a street after him near his former school, Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High. [ Miami Herald ]

Many Americans agreed. Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter and countless other organizations were spawned after the courts ruled that Zimmerman acted in self-defense when he shot and killed an unarmed teenager. Racial justice activism entered the mainstream.

“His life was too short and not meant to be stolen and, at the same time, I’m so grateful for what his spirit offers to the world even though his body was stolen,” said Abdullah, of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. She explained that after Trayvon’s death, Black Americans “recognized that we can’t just resist in a world that someone else built on our backs. We have a sacred duty to finish the work of our most righteous ancestors.”

However slowly America might seem to move, progress is still progress, says historian and Florida Memorial University Associate Provost Tameka Bradley Hobbs. Till’s murder, she explained, was the watershed moment that led to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Similarly, Trayvon’s death spurred the creation of Black Lives Matter.

But the movement itself didn’t become a global call to action until the 2020 murders of Floyd and Arbery. Then a counter push quickly emerged.

The current state of backlash doesn’t surprise Bradley Hobbs. It’s actually a staple of U.S. history, one that This American Life editor Emanuele Berry showcased with the following juxtapositions: Reconstruction led to Jim Crow laws; the civil rights movement to the war on drugs; Obama to Donald Trump; and, most recently, George Floyd to critical race theory. This, Bradley Hobbs contends, is all “part of the unraveling of white supremacy.”

Bradley Hobbs added that the civil rights movement couldn’t happen “without enough people realizing that what’s happening is wrong.” It has to be more than just Black people pushing for racial equity.

“It’s a long game,” she said. “We have a lot of people to convince.”