Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Trayvon Martin had a can of Arizona iced tea with him on the night of his death. He had a can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice. This text has been updated.
Wesley Lowery is a national reporter for The Washington Post and author of “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”
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 Watermelon Fruit Juice 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.”
By Sybrina Fulton and
Spiegel & Grau. 331 pp. $26