In the days since Martin Cobb died here trying to protect his older sister, people have filled the streets of his neighborhood to pray that he won’t be forgotten. Strangers sent money for his funeral and knocked on the door of his home to cry with his mother. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) praised the 8-year-old at the U.S. Capitol. People across the country are petitioning President Obama to recognize the boy as a national hero.

There was something about Marty — a tiny boy who was born prematurely and survived open-heart surgery at 3 months — that resonated, triggering an emotional response from people who understand the power of family ties or who know when to fight even if they can’t win.

Marty Cobb (Timothy Wright for The Washington Post)

His mother, Sharain Spruill, told him that he was the man of the house and that he should always take care of his 12-year-old sister. On the evening of May 1, Marty seems to have tried to do just that.

He and his sister were playing behind the house, near the railroad tracks, as they often did, Spruill said. She was cooking chicken and macaroni and cheese, Marty’s favorite dinner.

Suddenly, a 16-year-old neighbor burst through the back door, carrying Spruill’s bleeding daughter, Spruill said. The girl told her mother that she’d been attacked and that Marty had tried to fight off the attacker. Marty was killed in the struggle, his body lying on the railroad tracks.

The teenager said an older white man had attacked the children, Spruill said. But within hours, police arrested and charged a 16-year-old boy in connection with Marty’s death and the attack on his sister. The same teenager, it turned out, who had carried the girl home.

“Pound for pound, year for year, few greater heroes if any,” says a wooden sign surrounded by toys and flowers at a memorial outside Marty’s house. Bob Barnett, a Richmond retiree who never met the boy, spent most of Saturday carving it.

On the front are the words: “Martin, a real hero, lived, fought, and died here.”

Bob Barnett's homemade sign stands in the Richmond yard of Martin Cobb, 8, who was killed while trying to protect his sister from an attack. (Timothy Wright/For The Washington Post)
‘He watched over his sister’

Marty — also known as Little Man and Little Marty — turned 8 in March. He and his sister never seemed to be apart. They walked to the store together, rode skateboards together, ran to church together. She would carry him on her hip like a baby, or balance him on the handlebars of her bike while she pedaled.

“If we separated them, he would look back to see where she was,” said the Rev. Theodore Hughey, who founded the Abundant Life Church of God in Christ 25 years ago in this neighborhood wedged between railroad tracks and a busy commercial strip. “That’s the kind of closeness they had.”

The church sits across the street from Marty’s house, just around the corner from the home of the teenager charged in the attack.

Marty “watched over his sister,” Spruill said. She asked that her daughter’s name not be published because of her age and because she was the victim of and a witness to a violent crime.

If someone said something to his sister that Marty didn’t like, Hughey said, “he was almost like a little boxer jumping right into the ring.”

Theodore L. Hughey discusses the death of 8-year-old Martin Cobb while sitting in his church a few doors down from the boy’s home. (Timothy Wright/For The Washington Post)

The Hughey family and other members of the church tried to help children in the neighborhood whose families had less than others, offering extra school supplies and tutoring. Just before Easter, Martha Hughey took Marty’s sister to a beauty salon and then to Macy’s and J.C. Penney, where she picked out a pink dress for church, white gloves, white shoes and lacy white socks. Marty got a barbershop haircut, a pinstriped three-piece suit, a tie and shirt, and black shoes.

“He looked like a little man,” Martha Hughey said. “He just enjoyed it so much. He had his hand in his pocket like he was holding onto a million dollars.”

After church, Marty didn’t want to change back into play clothes. “His mother tried, his aunt tried,” she said. “He wouldn’t take it off the whole day.”

An earlier attack

The teenager charged in Marty’s death moved into the neighborhood recently, residents said.

“ ‘Whoever did that to Marty — I’m gonna kill him,’ ” Starquay Spruill, Marty’s 29-year-old half-sister, said the suspect told her when he carried the 12-year-old home. “ ‘I’m sorry for your loss. He used to play with my little brother.’ ”

Sharain Spruill, left, the mother of Marty Cobb, sits on the front porch of her home with her daughter, 29-year-old Starquay Spruill. (Timothy Wright/For The Washington Post)

Police said the teenager, who is black, intimidated Marty’s sister into giving an inaccurate description of an older, white assailant. Both The Washington Post and Richmond police are withholding the teenager’s name because he is charged as a juvenile.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary E. Langer declined to answer questions about Marty’s killing or the attack on his sister, citing the investigation. She said she could not discuss any details about the suspect because of his age. A procedural hearing is scheduled for later this month.

A place where ‘kids can play’

The little houses in Marty’s neighborhood in South Richmond, mostly rented, were built after World War II, and in some ways the neighborhood still echoes another time. Children pedal plastic cars down the bumpy old asphalt, and people sit outside in warm weather, chatting in plastic chairs under carports.

They all knew things weren’t perfect — people lost jobs, teenagers got in trouble, police made arrests. But “it’s a neighborhood where kids can play,” said Carl Prince, sitting on his stoop before heading to work for a cleaning service. “You don’t have to worry about speeding cars, gunshots.”

Marty Cobb and his sister regularly played near the railroad tracks behind their house in South Richmond. (Timothy Wright/For The Washington Post)

Diamonte Scott, 6, stands with his grandmother Irene Giles during a prayer vigil for Marty Cobb. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via Associated Press)

Theodore Hughey said the neighborhood reminds him of his childhood — a place where neighbors looked out for one another. “People would see Martin and his sister and say, ‘Have you eaten dinner yet?’ ” Hughey said. “And if they said, ‘Not yet,’ then, ‘Come on in.’ ”

On Friday, a funeral will be held for Marty. Strangers are donating to the Keys for Marty Foundation at Wells Fargo bank branches to help cover the cost.

Hughey, like so many others, said he is struggling for answers. He keeps thinking of Marty and his sister, always together. “I learned a lesson: that is what real love is about,” he said. “If you can’t love your sisters and your brothers, how are you going to learn to love other people?”

The church held a vigil for Marty last weekend. A neighbor broke down as she stepped into the candlelight, surround by Marty’s family members and hundreds of friends and strangers.

It was the mother of the teenage suspect. She quickly got swept into a hug, said Prince, who was in the crowd. Everyone knew she was hurting, too.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.