Trayvon Martin’s parents finding solace in activism

Frances Robles

It was still dark outside, and reporters were already waiting.

On the morning a grand jury was supposed to convene to deliberate on the Trayvon Martin case, the slain teenager’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, started her day as she has so many others these past six weeks: at 7 a.m., on live national television.

She repeated answers to the same tired questions with poise. She pretended it did not irk her to be asked again and again: “What would you say to George Zimmerman?” Fulton gave a dozen back-to-back interviews that day, often invoking the Bible verse from Proverbs that got her through the crushing grief in the public eye: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

“I am not doing this for fun,” Fulton said later. “I am doing this for a purpose. I know the purpose I am doing it for, and it pushes me forward, giving me the force to go ahead and put my clothes on and do it.”

After six weeks of rallies, news conferences and television interviews, Fulton finally fulfilled her purpose Wednesday, when Zimmerman, the man who killed her 17-year-old son, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The arrest underscored the effectiveness of a soft-spoken woman who, together with her ex-husband and team of attorneys, embarked on an uphill mission and created a movement.

“We had a lot of questions. I questioned, ‘Why Trayvon?’” she said.

“So many people’s children are killed, and their names are not known all over the world. Trayvon’s name is known all over the world. I had to go back and reread that scripture and lean not to my own understanding.”

On March 21, when she saw throngs of marchers in New York City wearing hoodies and chanting her boy’s name, she began to understand.

Martin died Feb. 26 when Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer in the gated community where the high school junior was staying, spotted the hooded teen walking too slowly in the rain and found him suspicious. Zimmerman called police. Within minutes the two were on the grass scuffling. Zimmerman claims he was taking a beating from Martin. He says he was forced to shoot the teen to save his own life.

The case sparked a national dialogue about everything from racial profiling to gun ownership to community patrols, and a black youth’s choice to don a hoodie. It so galvanized the nation that a man who went free the night he shot an unarmed high school student now faces the prospect of life in prison.

Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty and experts agree he has a decent shot at going free under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

“I still don’t think Sybrina has completely accepted that Trayvon is never coming back,” said Benjamin Crump, the Tallahassee attorney the family hired to help push for criminal charges. “At some point it will hit her. The media interviews are a constant reminder that this is real. What distinguishes Sybrina is that she’s an educated woman who tries to think before she responds. She has an inner voice, and I’m blown away by the things she says.”

Fulton, 46, is on leave from her job as a program coordinator at the Miami-Dade Housing Authority. She started working there when she was 23.

It was her job to prepare the former residents of the Scott Carver Housing projects to live elsewhere. She worked as a code enforcement officer, helped set up financial self-sufficiency programs and worked with homeowner associations. She’s used to dealing with single moms surrounded by violence and poverty.

She studied English and communications at Grambling State University and Florida Memorial College, both historically black colleges. Fulton graduated from Norland High School and had the kind of upbringing that included field trips to NASA. She tried to offer her son the kind of middle-class perks she enjoyed as a child — horseback riding, skiing, Broadway shows.

“We are a close-knit family. We like to travel, attend church and family events,” Fulton said. “I had a very good life. I wanted to make sure Trayvon had a good life, too.”

But Martin had been getting in trouble at school for issues that ranged from graffiti to tardiness and an empty baggie allegedly laced with marijuana residue. On his third suspension, Martin’s parents sent him to get his head straight in Central Florida, where Martin’s father’s girlfriend lives.

It was at the Sanford townhouse complex in the suburbs where the black urban teenager was shot by a white Latino stranger.

Crump and the pro-bono publicist he brought on, Ryan Julison, crafted a media strategy to make the story national. Reuters reported first, then CBS News.

“Sybrina has shown incredible poise and grace under a great deal of scrutiny while at the height of grief to open her heart,” Julison said. “She’s typical of other moms I have dealt with in tragic situations in that she’s got a strength — I don’t know where it comes from — but she’s ready and knows what her task at hand is.”

For Martin’s parents, the task was simple: an arrest.

Crump and Fulton acknowledge that at first, she was a most unwilling activist. It was Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, whom she divorced in 1999, who attended early press conferences and gave interviews. Fulton refused to ever step foot in Central Florida again.

Crump admits he has pushed the family hard. Last week alone, they went from Miami to Sanford to Washington, D.C., and then New York. They’re expected to offer testimony at the United Nations and have met with members of Congress.

One Sunday evening last month, they huddled in a hotel lobby to pray with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“They never prepared for anything like this,” Crump said.

Tracy Martin can’t count how many times he has taken reporters for a tour of the grassy path at the Retreat at Twin Lakes development where his son was shot on his way back from 7-Eleven.

“Every time I walk this sidewalk I try to visualize Trayvon’s last steps. It’s hard,” he said. “We will continue to do this walk-through as long as God gives me the strength to do it. We know Trayvon is looking over us.”

Crump is conscious of the difficult moments, like when “Good Morning America” was waiting, and a sobbing Fulton refused to leave her bed. Or when the Washington Post editorial board asked what seemed like a harmless question: “How do you prevent this from happening to your other son?”

“She started shaking,” Crump recalled. “She hadn’t thought of that before — that this could happen to her other son. There was dead silence. Then she started screaming: ‘What do you do? If someone is going to be racist, there is nothing you can do to protect him! What did we do wrong?’”

Her other son, Jahvaris Fulton, is a junior at Florida International University.

Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett met Fulton and Martin when the mayor made the decision to release the 911 tapes police sought to keep from the public. The parents went to his office and listened to the chilling sounds of someone — Fulton believes it was Martin — crying for help.

“It was a very somber moment, obviously. I think she got up midway through it and walked out,” Triplett said. “It was sad and somber for everybody in the room, especially her.

”They are class acts.“

But the family was also criticized by conservative pundits for their decision to lean on controversial civil-rights figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. Asked what message he would offer the family,

Zimmerman’s father, Robert, told an Orlando TV station, ”I’m sorry for the hate.“ Zimmerman’s former attorney, Hal Uhrig, accused the activists of employing a strategy to deliberately sow division in the community.

Conservative bloggers wonder whether the family’s motivation was money.

Fulton was blasted by right-wing groups for releasing outdated pictures of her son in what they called an attempt to portray Martin in a better light to the public. They combed cyberspace to find photos — some real, some fake — where Martin looked more like a ruffian.

Some black commentators said it was time for Fulton to step aside, because this week, for the first time, she fumbled an interview by saying she thought the shooting was ”an accident.“ She later clarified her comments, saying she meant the encounter between Zimmerman and her son was an accident.

Victims’ rights advocates say that by becoming such nationally recognized figures, Fulton and Martin run the risk of delaying their own grieving. But experts acknowledge that for many parents of homicide victims, the mission can help ease the heartache.

”They are dealing with the media in the fog of trauma,“ said Anne Seymour, who co-authored a media guide for crime victims. ”Every victim is unique, and every victim’s grief is unique. For a lot of people, becoming activists — and I use that word in the most positive way — is part of their process.“

Seymour, co-founder of a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that specializes in crime victims’ rights, has followed the case closely.

”Trayvon’s parents are an inspiration,“ she said. ”It’s a brave thing they are doing. I want to emphasize ‘brave.’ It’s not easy as a homicide victim survivor to find the capacity in your heart and physical body to do what they are doing.“

Howard Clark, president and acting executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, warns that Fulton and Martin have a long journey ahead.

”Closure doesn’t exist,“ said Clark, who became an activist after the 1987 murder of the niece he raised as a daughter. ”The murderer is always in front of you. There’s the arrest, the trial, the appeal, the parole. You’re never out from underneath this thing.“

Fulton and Martin said they are getting by with the overwhelming support of the public.

Martin admits it’s odd to be stopped by strangers to take photos, but he does it. Fulton gives hugs to strangers and smiles even when she’s interrupted having a meal at the mall.

”Everybody knows who we are,“ Martin said.

Roughly 2,000 people have mailed letters, music CDs, videos and other gifts to help console them, which she brings with her to read on her plane rides. A New Jersey artist even sent a huge painting of Martin in his hoodie. The letters and meditation help her relax, Fulton said.

”I really want to thank everybody for supporting us,“ Fulton said. ”I thank them for signing petitions and for coming to the rallies, for having — and continuing to have — peaceful rallies.“

Martin emphasized peaceful.

Renita Holmes, a Liberty City activist, said Fulton and Martin are now idols in urban Miami. Fulton, she said, was already respected for the courteous and respectful demeanor she employed while working with inner city moms.

”Sybrina is an icon,“ Holmes said. ”A black woman. A single mother.

There are stereotypes of what single black women can do. Women in Liberty City look up to her, because this is all about a mother’s fight. “She and Tracy represent me. They represent all of us.”


©2012 The Miami Herald

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By Frances Robles
McClatchy Newspapers