For Trayvon Martin’s parents, a journey of grief and advocacy

Updated
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin, attend a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon...
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin, attend a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon...
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Late last spring, as crowds gathered outside of the civic center in Sanford, Fla., chanting: “We want justice,” Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton huddled in a backstage dressing room preparing to meet the throngs of people outside.

It had been one month since their son, Trayvon Martin, had been killed not far from there by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense.

In the first weeks after the killing, police declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law which gives wide discretion in the use of deadly force in self-defense.

“Right now, we can’t stop. If we stop, the world will stop,” Tracy Martin said in an interview that day, moments before the family was to make its first public appeal to the City Commission to take action in the case. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”

Zimmerman was arrested two weeks later and charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

But the family kept on fighting. Over the last year, they have given dozens of interviews, traveled extensively and aligned themselves with victims of racially charged killings and gun violence from Chicago to London.

Now, more than a year after their son’s death, the rallies and protests have given way to anticipation of Zimmerman’s upcoming trial scheduled to begin in Sanford on June 10.

Martin and Fulton will be observers and potential participants. Prosecutors have included both parents on the witness list. It does not guarantee that they will be called but they must be available. That seems likely—as the victim’s parents they will also have seats in the courtroom for a trial that could last as long as six weeks.

“This year has been very difficult,” Fulton said on msnbc’s Politics Nation in late February on the one-year anniversary of Martin’s death. “We’ve met a lot of nice people but I don’t think it measures up to the loss that we have endured.”

Martin and Fulton were divorced years ago but since their son’s death they have drawn nearer to one another. “It`s been a sad year. The more we keep his name going, the more we keep his legacy going, the stronger we become as parents of a lost child.”

In Sanford:

Trayvon Martin was raised in Miami but he died in Sanford, an Orlando suburb where his father’s girlfriend lived in a gated community. On the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, he walked to a nearby convenience store and purchased a pack of candy and a canned iced-tea.

On the way back to his father’s girlfriend’s house, he encountered Zimmerman who has said he shot Trayvon Martin during a struggle that ensued after he’d called 911 to report Martin as “suspicious.” Zimmerman trailed the teen as he walked through the neighborhood back to the home he was visiting. Zimmerman and his lawyers say Zimmerman then lost sight of Martin before the teen came up from behind, exchanged a few words with Zimmerman and then attacked him.

After the shooting, supporters of the family joined in protests across the country calling for Zimmerman’s immediate arrest, saying he profiled Trayvon Martin because he was young, black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Others characterized the teenaged victim as a pot-smoking thug and accused the “liberal media” of unfairly vilifying Zimmerman before all of the facts had been heard. Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead attorney, says that race has nothing to do with the case.

As national attention drew to the case, Martin’s parents kept it on the front pages of national newspapers and on primetime cable news programs, rarely turning down media requests. They appeared at rallies small and large to keep the memory of their son alive.

For Martin, 46, and Fulton, 47, the death of their son has meant a reunion of sorts. They divorced in 1999. Martin is a truck driver, often on the road for long stretches. And Fulton has worked for the Miami-Dade county housing authority for 23 years. She’s been on an extended leave since her son’s death.

Tracy Martin, tall, bearded and with a clean shaven head often appears in public emotionally steady, almost stoic. Fulton more often than not wears the weight of a mother’s grief like an unwanted badge. For more than a year she has publicly detailed her loss and almost always seeming on the verge of tears.

“He had just turned 17 a few days before he was killed. I remember how much he was looking forward to senior picture day,” Fulton said in an interview in December. “It’s still difficult to swallow because Trayvon had his whole life ahead of him. Seventeen years just seems so short to me, but I do thank God for the time that he did give me with him.”

In Washington:

In March, 2012, As Martin and Fulton were grappling with their son’s death and hoping for an arrest, President Obama stood before a gathering of reporters outside the White House to introduce his nominee to lead the World Bank.

It was a rather routine announcement until a reporter shouted out a question that Obama’s advisers had been steering him clear of for weeks: “Mr. President, can we ask you about this current case in Florida…?” the reporter asked. “Can you comment on the Trayvon Martin case?”

At the time, the killing and lack of an immediate arrest had already sparked national outrage and protests. Central to the early fervor surrounding the case is the matter of race. Martin was African-American. Zimmerman is of white and Hispanic descent.

In the Rose Garden, the president glanced down at the lectern and took a long pause before biting his lip and exhaling into the microphone.

“If I had a son,” Obama said, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

The president called the killing a “tragedy” and urged America “to do some soul searching.”

The parents responded almost immediately.

“The president’s personal comments touched us deeply and made us wonder: If his son looked like Trayvon and wore a hoodie, would he be suspicious too?” Martin and Fulton said in a statement later that day.

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Others saw it differently. Newt Gingrich, who was a Republican presidential candidate at the time, called Obama’s comments “disgraceful.”

“Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him,” Gingrich asked.

Rush Limbaugh told his legion of listeners that the president was using the situation as a “political opportunity.”

Around the country, signs of discord flourished. The phrase “Long Live Zimmerman,” was spray-painted on various buildings, including Ohio State University’s black cultural center. In one of the more biting, public incidents, someone hacked into an electronic road sign in Michigan and changed the message to, “Trayvon a nigger.”

Zimmerman still had not yet been arrested. And details of Trayvon Martin’s school life soon fueled attacks on his character.

Martin was serving a 10-day suspension from high school when he was killed. A family spokesperson says Martin was suspended after an empty baggie was found in his book bag that school officials said contained marijuana residue.

“I refuse to let them assassinate my son’s character,” Tracy Martin said at the time. “The question should not be why was he suspended from school, it should be why did this man kill him in cold blood.”

On the Road:

Last month, Tracy Martin walked up to a small stage at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan and settled in behind a long table with five other black men. The event was part of a three-day long conference sponsored by the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosts Politics Nation on msnbc.

To Martin’s immediate left sat Nathaniel Pendleton, the father of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed by alleged gang members in a case of mistaken identity.

Her death came one week after she and other members of her school’s majorette team participated in the parade for the president’s second inaugural.

The panel was billed as straight talk with black men on the state of black manhood. Martin leaned in to the microphone propped in front of him.

“I’d like to talk a little bit today about how we can actually start to get over the grieving process of losing someone so near and dear to your heart.” Because, he said, “it’s definitely a long road that we have to travel.”

Since their son’s death, the family has traveled the country meeting with other families of gun violence victims, including the family of Pendleton, Amadou Diallo and some whose names never rose to national prominence.

In England they met with the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a black London teenager who was beaten to death in a racist attack there. They’ve led anti-violence rallies in Florida and New York City and have even launched a political action committee to fight Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws.

Back at home and preparing for the trial, Martin and Fulton gathered with friends and supporters at a Miami church last Saturday for an event that combined prayer with a call for peace.

“I say to you, I stand here as a mother, that my heart is hurting, but I know that God will work this out,’’ said a tearful Fulton.

It was their last scheduled public appearance before the trial begins Monday.

“I think that the trial for them is a real sense of closure,” Pastor Jamal Bryant, one of a few high-profile ministers who’ve aided the family spiritually in the wake of Martin’s death, told msnbc recently. “With all of the rallies and all of the events it’s been more than just a year of fighting, it’s as if there’s been a constant funeral.”

For Trayvon Martin's parents, a journey of grief and advocacy

Updated