By Marc Morial
“We’re here to let the community, and particularly teenagers, know that they have a right to walk in peace without being followed, without being harmed and without being killed.”
– Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin
A year has passed since that awful day last February 26 when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while returning from a convenience store to a townhouse he and his father were visiting in Sanford, Fla. Trayvon Martin was an unarmed African American teenager, wearing a hoodie. The shooter was George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, who called 9-11 to report a “suspicious” person and then ignored a police dispatcher’s order not to follow Trayvon.
Moments later, Trayvon was shot dead. Since then, thousands of other gun deaths and several mass shootings have elevated the issue of gun violence to the top of the national agenda. But the death of Trayvon Martin remains especially disturbing to many of us because of what it says about the racial profiling of young Black males, police departments that are often slow to protect their rights, and a fatally flawed law that gives people — possibly even criminals — the right to shoot first and ask questions later.
It took a while, but the wheels of justice are turning in the Trayvon Martin case. In the wake of widespread criticism of the nearly six-week delay in arresting and charging Zimmerman with a crime, former Sanford police chief, Bill Lee was fired last June. Former Elgin, Illinois deputy police chief, Cecil Smith is set to take over as head of the Sanford police force on April 1. Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial begins on June 10. It is believed that he and his lawyers will base their defense on Florida’s troubling Stand Your Ground law which states that anyone in fear of his or her life could be justified in using lethal force against a potential or perceived attacker.
Thousands of citizens have rallied in recent days to mark the one-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. On February 9, four days after what would have been Trayvon’s 18th birthday, his parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, sponsored an “I am Trayvon Day of Remembrance Community Peace Walk” in North Miami-Dade County. Students at Florida State University in Tallahassee have rallied for a repeal of the Stand Your Ground law. And on February 26, a “Million Hoodie” candlelight vigil was held in New York’s Union Square that was attended by hundreds, including actor Jamie Foxx.
While attention now turns to the upcoming trial, as the father of a 10-year-old son, I cannot help but recall what Sybrina and Tracy said about their son a year ago: “Trayvon was our hero. At age 9, Trayvon pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17, he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that’s all gone.”
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin have formed the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation to honor their son and to “advocate for all victims of injustice and senseless crimes throughout the world.” Like millions of Americans, we continue to stand with them. We will not rest until justice is done.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.