Trayvon Martin’s death set off a movement that shaped a decade’s defining moments

A demonstrator protesting after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin, in Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 2020.
A demonstrator protesting after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin, in Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 2020. ( Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

The seeds of the movement were planted in pain. Trayvon Martin was killed on Feb. 26, 2012, and the impact of his death radiated from Sanford, Fla., in a pattern of concentric circles, from his family, to his community, to the country and, eventually, the world.

Martin’s death inspired a new generation of protests against police and vigilante violence toward Black people, one that would go on to highlight systemic racism in nearly every aspect of American life. As the advocacy reached beyond law enforcement practices to address structural inequalities, it also informed efforts to combat climate change, gun violence and sexual assault.

Ten years later, that activism — from Florida to Ferguson; from the first use of the rallying cry “Black lives matter” to the day it was painted in big block letters near the White House — has shaped some of the decade’s most defining moments.

“I became a mother on a mission,” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, recounted in “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin,” the book she co-wrote with his father, Tracy Martin. “A mission to bring awareness and change. So that the killing of Trayvon Martin would stand for something, so that the killing will someday stop and the healing will begin.”

Here are some of the major milestones in the evolution of that movement.

From family tragedy to national movement

In the days immediately following Martin’s death at the hands of neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the case received little public attention beyond the family and a circle of friends.

The Orlando Sentinel devoted only a few dozen words to the shooting, incorrectly referring to the 17-year-old Martin as a man and naming neither victim nor perpetrator. Scant local reports followed, in late February and early March, repeating the initial police narrative of a fight gone awry.

An early turning point came when civil rights lawyer Ben Crump became involved in Martin’s case. Crump in turn enlisted the help of an Orlando-based public relations expert, Ryan Julison, and together with Martin’s parents they persistently pitched the story to local and national media outlets. Crump would continue to effectively employ this strategy.

On March 7, Reuters published a 14-paragraph article about the case, and “CBS This Morning” aired a segment the next day, where Tracy Martin made his first appearance on television, his anguish still acute, and expressed outrage that Zimmerman had not been arrested.

“My emotions were raw and my words passionate, and I hoped that the reporters could feel my love and grief for my fallen son,” he later wrote of his earliest interactions with the media, in “Rest in Power.”

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A number of Black journalists began to cover the story relentlessly, pushing it further into the mainstream and ensuring it stayed there, according to the reporter Trymaine Lee, who was among the first to write about Martin.

This all unfolded against a social media backdrop that would be nearly unrecognizable by today’s standards.

“Ten years ago, social media activism was in its infancy,” said Sarah J. Jackson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and co-author of the book “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.” “People were learning as they went along. It wasn’t the default logic to use social media for activism and to raise awareness. It wasn’t the default logic to use hashtags, but it was increasingly becoming so.”

Before Martin, high-profile deaths of Black men, such as Sean Bell in New York City and Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., stirred protests and, in Grant’s case, generated a hashtag. But Martin’s case helped usher in a new era of online activism.

On March 21, it moved in earnest from the Internet to the streets, when organizers in New York City convened the “Million Hoodie March” to promote the cause, the name a reference to the hooded sweatshirt Martin was wearing when he was killed — which, along with the bag of Skittles he carried, became a potent protest symbol. Across the country, other cities held similar demonstrations.

“What began as a family tragedy had turned into a national movement,” Fulton wrote in “Rest in Power.” “We had a goal, a platform, and supporters from coast to coast all clamoring for justice for Trayvon.”

Trayvon Martin's former football coach Jerome Horton discusses the teen's life, impact and legacy 10 years after his death. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Two days later, President Barack Obama publicly addressed Martin’s death for the first time, delivering a now-indelible line: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said from the Rose Garden.

In the weeks and months after Obama’s address, right-wing support for Zimmerman grew, with conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh coming to his defense. Zimmerman raised more than $200,000 in an online fundraiser after he was charged with second-degree murder on April 11, 2012, an early example of how social media activism reflects real-world partisan divides.

On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman, touching off the most impassioned, sustained and widespread protests to that date.

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“It was devastating,” said Justin Hansford, the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. “Most people in the movement would be able to tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about that acquittal. It changed the way that a whole generation of young people especially thought about the country.”

That night, community organizer Alicia Garza was with friends at a bar in Oakland. The news compelled her to open Facebook and compose a succinct post that included, for the first time, a three-word affirmation: “Black lives matter.”

‘When the pot boiled over’

Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal sparked the formation of a number of new racial justice organizations, including the Black Lives Matter network, Dream Defenders and Black Youth Project 100, and many of the groups eventually joined the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella coalition.

These groups and other activists helped lay the foundation for what happened in Ferguson, Mo., in the days and months after a White police officer shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed Black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014. The killing triggered massive and prolonged protests, highlighting discriminatory practices and a history of racial and economic segregation.

The uprising in Ferguson was momentous, said Hansford, who was an activist there, and the protests following Martin’s death “set the stage.”

“People don't react the way they did to Mike Brown without having had the Trayvon Martin situation a year before,” Hansford said. “The Trayvon Martin situation was the pot boiling, and then the Mike Brown situation was when the pot boiled over, and it started spilling onto the stove and it was a big mess.”

Protesters in Ferguson and around the country used the hashtags #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter to organize demonstrations on social media and to track the latest developments, opting to follow feeds from on-the-ground activists over mainstream news outlets, which many felt lacked credibility.

Social and mainstream media picked up the story of Brown’s death far faster than that of Martin’s, with coverage and online conversation beginning almost immediately after the shooting. Attention increased after police in Ferguson became more aggressive and protests turned violent.

At the time, tweets were limited to 140 characters, forcing activists and everyday users to learn “how to succinctly and clearly make a political argument in very few characters and very few words,” Jackson said.

In that year and the next, waves of protest continued in Ferguson. During the same period, anger built across the nation, after a number of high-profile incidents where Black people were killed by police officers or died in police custody, including Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott.

And Black Lives Matter continued its transition from rally declaration to full-blown political movement.

“We know it came out of this failure to find George Zimmerman guilty of killing Trayvon Martin,” Jackson said of the phrase. “But it spoke to something so much bigger than just the Trayvon Martin case. It spoke to this much larger, almost spiritual or ethical framework for understanding the world.”

From Obama to Trump

The election of Donald Trump — which some attributed to a backlash among White Americans against Obama’s tenure and the changing country — marked both a disappointment for most racial justice advocates and an inflection point, stirring still more activism, including under the Black Lives Matter banner.

But even before Trump’s election, the discussion around reforms had shifted to a more systemic approach. Hansford pointed to the moment Obama convened a task force on policing, which brought together representatives from law enforcement, academia and civil rights advocacy. The group presented a sweeping report, yet police forces were slow to adopt the recommended changes.

“It’s not just that Trump came in,” Hansford said. “But Obama was here for eight years, and we had been chanting, ‘Yes we can,’ and the fact that he couldn’t fix it made a lot of people reevaluate their politics.”

In the years that followed, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, energized activists pushed for the inclusion of a racial justice platform in nearly every major movement, from climate change — the worst impacts of which disproportionately harm people of color — to school shootings, most notably in Parkland, Fla., where student survivors highlighted gun violence in low-income communities of color.

And when #MeToo exploded in 2017 without mentioning Tarana Burke, the Black woman who started the movement a decade earlier, Burke and other advocates corrected the record and steered the national conversation toward women and girls of color, who experience the highest rates of sexual violence.

Trayvon Martin to George Floyd

On May 25, 2020, a White Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the neck and back of George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest, killing the 46-year-old Black man.

Cellphone video of the episode — especially the footage captured by Darnella Frazier, then 17 — challenged the initial police account of Floyd’s death. Frazier’s now-famous video quickly went viral and launched the largest sustained protests in American history. Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, would eventually be convicted of murder and manslaughter.

The moment dovetailed with activism after the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., and it signaled the arrival of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mainstream.

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Giant corporations and sports leagues pledged their commitments to racial equality and the mayor of D.C. had “Black Lives Matter” painted in large yellow letters on the street leading to the White House.

“Seven years ago, people thought that Black Lives Matter was a radical idea,” Garza said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the time. “And yet, Black Lives Matter is now a household name, and it’s something being discussed across kitchen tables all over the world.”

Many protesters have said that not enough has changed, and that promises made by companies and politicians have fallen far short.

But in an interview this month with the Orlando Sentinel, Crump, who has since become the country’s most prominent civil rights attorney, drew a line from Martin’s death in 2012 to the present day and highlighted some victories along the way.

“I think when you look at the conviction of the killer of George Floyd, the conviction of the killer of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, the lynch mob of Ahmaud Arbery, that all harkens back to Trayvon Martin and raising the consciousness level that Black lives matter,” Crump said. “I believe that, without Trayvon, we would see none of the progress that we’ve made.”

On Feb. 5 this year, Martin would have celebrated his 27th birthday. His parents, who have become prominent social justice activists, held a walk and rally in his honor, with many in the crowd sporting shirts emblazoned with a photo of Martin in a hoodie. Fulton’s message to those in attendance was one of resolve and a recognition of all the work she says still needs to be done.

“We’ve got to see past what’s in front of us,” she said. “We can’t give up. We’ve come too far to give up now.”