Par­ents re­count their fight for jus­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

Mamie Till-Mob­ley pub­lished “Death of In­no­cence” nearly 50 years af­ter the mur­der of her 14-year-old son, Em­mett Till. Her 2004 book, an ac­count of Em­mett’s life and death and the fail­ure of jus­tice in his killing, has served as a hand­book for other fam­i­lies suf­fer­ing a sim­i­lar fate. “I qui­etly pray for the griev­ing moth­ers of other missing or mur­dered chil­dren,” Till-Mob­ley wrote. “We are con­nected, these other moth­ers and I. We share a bond, the knowl­edge of an ex­clu­sive few.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2012, Sy­b­rina Ful­ton and Tracy Martin gained that painful knowl­edge. Their son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed as he walked home from a con­ve­nience store in San­ford, Fla., a bag of Skit­tles in his hand and a can of Ari­zona iced tea in his pocket. His killer, Ge­orge Zim­mer­man, was a self-ap­pointed neigh­bor­hood watch­man who found Trayvon sus­pi­cious. Zim­mer­man, armed with a gun, fol­lowed the boy, prompt­ing a con­fronta­tion. Af­ter the shoot­ing, Zim­mer­man claimed self-de­fense, and lo­cal po­lice let him go.

The na­tion’s eyes turned to San­ford as thou­sands de­manded that Zim­mer­man be ar­rested and tried. “I am Trayvon” be­came a ral­ly­ing cry painted on protest signs and posted on­line by ath­letes and celebri­ties. And later, af­ter a jury de­clined to con­vict Zim­mer­man, the de­ci­sion prompted the cre­ation of a new, in­sis­tent re­frain: “Black lives mat­ter.”

Like Till’s mother, Trayvon’s par­ents were un­pre­pared for the at­ten­tion their son’s death stirred, and they have worked to en­sure that his name and his tragedy will not be for­got­ten. Now, five years af­ter his death, they have pub­lished a beau­ti­ful, sear­ing ac­count of their ex­pe­ri­ence. “Rest in Power: The En­dur­ing Life of Trayvon Martin” is an in­ti­mate por­trait of their slain son and a de­tail-rich chron­i­cle of the year from his death to his killer’s ac­quit­tal.

“In death, Trayvon Martin be­came a mar­tyr and a sym­bol of racial in­jus­tice, a name and a face on T-shirts, posters, and protest signs,” Ful­ton writes in the book’s open­ing pages. “When he was alive, of course, he was none of those things,” Ful­ton writes. “He was sim­ply a boy, grow­ing into a young man, with all of the won­der and prom­ise and strug­gle that that jour­ney en­tails.”

The book pro­ceeds chrono­log­i­cally in al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters nar­rated by each par­ent. We join Tracy Martin in the fran­tic search for his son the morn­ing af­ter the shoot­ing, when he re­al­izes that Trayvon had never come home. Then we are taken next to Sy­b­rina Ful­ton in Mi­ami as she hears con­fir­ma­tion of her son’s death: “Trayvon is gone.”

Next came three dif­fi­cult bat­tles: first, the push to get lo­cal po­lice to pub­licly re­lease 911 tapes and other cru­cial ev­i­dence; then, the cam­paign to have Zim­mer­man ar­rested, charged and tried; and fi­nally, the trial it­self. At each junc­ture, Trayvon’s par­ents pro­vide what amount to diary en­tries con­tain­ing their re­solve and their frus­tra­tion.

While the chap­ters are writ­ten sep­a­rately, this book is not just the story of griev­ing par­ents. It is the tale of two in­di­vid­u­als, two part­ners — even in di­vorce — bound for­ever by their son and drawn close again by his loss.

Strik­ing, too, is their re­call of the gra­cious­ness and sol­i­dar­ity that were show­ered upon them by the at­tor­neys who never gave up, the pub­lic re­la­tions con­sul­tant who worked for months pro bono, and the ac­tivists and or­ga­niz­ers from New York and D.C. who took up Trayvon’s cause and haven’t stoppped.

“Strangers de­scended on our cause like an­gels,” Martin writes.

Ful­ton re­calls that she had no de­sire to travel to San­ford to see the place where her son was killed. But when she ar­rived for the first time, she couldn’t look away from the memorial that res­i­dents had made for Trayvon. She knew then that she was not alone.

While the book tracks only the years 2012 and 2013, with just pass­ing ref­er­ences to Fer­gu­son, Mo., and the protest move­ment that came later, the co­coon of sup­port and out­rage that sur­rounded Trayvon’s death eerily fore­cast the racially charged cases that fol­lowed. Calls for jus­tice came quickly from both the civil rights old guard, the Jesse Jack­sons and Al Sharp­tons, as well as from a new crop of young ac­tivists, such as the Dream De­fend­ers and Mil­lion Hood­ies United for Jus­tice, who would take to the streets and stay there.

Also here to stay are Trayvon’s par­ents, who six months af­ter his death cre­ated the Trayvon Martin Foun­da­tion and who have served as men­tors and friends to the par­ents of Eric Gar­ner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and other black men and women whose deaths have stunned the na­tion and sad­dled their loved ones with the knowl­edge of the ex­clu­sive few.

That Ful­ton and Martin have be­come the el­der coun­selors of this mor­bid fra­ter­nity should per­haps sur­prise no one. Mid­way through the book, Martin re­calls one of Ful­ton’s first tele­vi­sion in­ter­views af­ter Trayvon’s death, in which an MSNBC host asked just how long she planned to keep fight­ing.

“Un­til the day I die,” she re­sponded, in a tone not much dif­fer­ent from Till-Mob­ley’s. “I am a mother, and I want jus­tice for my son, and I won’t stop un­til I re­ceive that.”

Wes­ley Low­ery is a na­tional reporter for The Wash­ing­ton Post and the au­thor of “They Can’t Kill Us All: Fer­gu­son, Baltimore, and a New Era in Amer­ica’s Racial Jus­tice Move­ment.”


Sy­b­rina Ful­ton holds a pic­ture of her son, Trayvon Martin, who was killed five years ago this month.

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