CHARLOTTE — If President Obama’s personal and heartfelt speech on race reached only the ears of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, it would have been enough. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said, leaving unsaid a parent’s dream for a child, the unspoken other side of the equation, that Trayvon Martin could have become him in 35 years – an educated man, a husband and father and, perhaps, president of the United States.
“We are thankful for President Obama’s and Michelle’s prayers, and we ask for your prayers as well as we continue to move forward,” the parents responded. “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy. Trayvon’s life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come.” They are moving forward with a foundation in their son’s name to help other young people. “We seek a future where our children can grow up and become the people God intended them to be.”
They will never have their son back but it must have been sweet relief to hear kind words from the president in a week when so many were trying to turn a 17-year-old into someone the people closest to him did not recognize.
The trial in Sanford, Fla., that ended with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin quickly turned into a debate on gun restrictions, Stand Your Ground laws, racial profiling and the justice system. But what truly shocked me was how a dead child became an Obama proxy, with the president’s most rabid opponents showing little empathy for grieving parents and those who would comfort them. GOP Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland told those unhappy with the verdict to “get over it,” as though there’s nothing to see here, no honest discussion of race and gun laws to be had.
Even for those who agree with the trial’s conclusion, Trayvon Martin’s life should matter. But then, many who dismiss his death could never imagine an African American teenage boy growing up to lead a life of accomplishment and purpose, with the evidence of President Obama standing before them.
That’s why it’s a good thing that the president’s Friday message was intended for more than an audience of two. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” he said to everyone. As people listened, they heard what they wanted to hear.
Robert Zimmerman Jr., the brother of George Zimmerman said he was glad the president spoke out. “I think he was very sincere in his remarks,” he said. However, in order for any meaningful discussion to take place, he would first have to own his own history of hateful comments that stereotyped Trayvon Martin and all young black men during his brother’s trial.
I doubt that any conciliatory statement will be forthcoming — from him or defense lawyers who zealously represented their client, in part by trying to draw a line from neighborhood crime to a teenager who had no part in it. It was a convincing argument with at least one juror who saw the defendant as “George” frustrated with the harm “these people” were inflicting. Did that juror see herself learning anything from the president’s remarks?
Some may put their fingers in their ears and hum loudly, ignoring the experiences of Americans that don’t fit a triumphal narrative. There are already those who claim exhaustion at the very thought. The conversation will just have to continue without them, led by their fellow citizens who cannot or would not choose to turn away.
I heard from those Americans at Saturday’s rally for Trayvon Martin in Charlotte, men and women determined to continue honest words among themselves and across lines that divide us. Though the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network helped organize gatherings around the country, none of the people I spoke with needed a leader to tell them what to do or how to think. They appreciated Obama’s words, but they would have been marching without them. They didn’t need a rallying cry, though the death of Trayvon Martin moved their hearts.
The folks who have been told to get over it for years said it is time to move on, from protests to action, to efforts supporting anti-profiling legislation and added scrutiny of gun laws that put them at risk even from those, like George Zimmerman, without any official authority.
“Laws have been passed to allow more African Americans to be stopped and killed,” said Dwayne Gross, 54, who added that his son has been stopped for no reason. “I had to do something, to get involved,” he said. Gross said he was afraid that an argument over a parking spot might end up with him dead. He had a story, like so many did, this one a memory that has never left him, from when he was 13, growing up in New York, and riding in a car with friends, pulled over by two policemen with guns drawn. “When that happens, you’re just so happy to get out alive,” he said.
Gross had not done anything illegal then or since. But the law-abiding owner of an IT firm said every time he sees a police car pull up behind him, “I still have a freaking heart attack.” Gross said it was important for the nation to hear the president’s voice, though “his enemies will hate him no matter what.”
Gross said he is paying close attention to the case of Michael Dunn, the white Florida software developer who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music in a Jacksonville convenience-store parking lot. Dunn is expected to claim a Stand Your Ground defense.
Like Gross, 44-year-old Kimberlee Boulding, a Charlotte social worker, saw the rally as a step toward action and accountability, and voting for candidates who will demand more of both. Too many voters were excited about Obama’s election, she said, and forgot that state and local elections “have more to do with our everyday lives.” The outrage over Trayvon Martin’s killing began, she said, when there was no arrest and barely an investigation. “When a child walking is killed like he was nothing,” Boulding said, “you know that the system is not for us.” Expecting justice, she said, is not “whining.”
Carmen Cunningham has heard that complaint and said she feared “Americans are losing empathy for one another.” The 54-year-old mental health professional, who is white, joined the NAACP after Martin’s killing. “I have a 21-year-old son; he wears a hoodie,” she said. “I can only imagine what mothers of black sons go through.” President Obama “is not trying to cause division; he’s trying to bring us together.”
Obama, critics have said, should remember he is president of all Americans, as though the African American experience is separate, does not equal “American” and started yesterday. It’s a history of hard work, sacrifice and survival against sometimes punishing treatment, which included laws that encoded discrimination. When there are wars to be fought or taxes to be paid, we are all one happy American family. But the president’s simple request that people take a moment to pay attention to the disparate everyday lives of neighbors and friends becomes divisive identity politics.
It’s not Obama who set himself apart. After all, he is the only president who has been asked to show his papers to prove he belongs. He is not alone among presidents in bringing a personal perspective to the job. Every American should care about the fact that he, the attorney general or anyone is profiled, rather than dismissing story after painful story as an exaggeration or a minor inconvenience to be expected.
At the rally, speakers talked about lessons for the young and the importance of education. They were concerned and seeking solutions about a variety of issues, including the violence within communities that is often brought up, less to express concern about dead children than to admonish African Americans to busy themselves with injustice in a particular place before they care about injustice everywhere.
In some ways, the mood of the crowd on Saturday reminded me of some tea party gatherings I’ve covered, a determination to make a difference in what seems like a moment of defeat.
“We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America and to try and talk about the difficult issues that we need to bring into the light in order to become a better people,” said the parents of Trayvon Martin.
Like those at Saturday’s rally, they were certainly happy to hear the president’s words, to know he understands. But, also like the crowds who continued to gather across the country this past weekend, they weren’t waiting for him or anyone else as they seek justice — and a conversation — on their own terms.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3