By Phil Brown, Reporter
The death of Trayvon Martin nearly three years ago was a watershed moment in the United States’ recent, troubled relationship with race and violence.
The implications, machinations, scandals, twists and turns—sensationally reported by the media and gobbled up by the nation at large—polarized a nation. They set in motion, or drew more attention to, an ongoing debate and discussion on race and violence, punctuated further by more tragic deaths in the years since.
A woman caught in the vortex of that tragic storm rose above the clamor, becoming a “voice for the voiceless”—not merely a symbol of those killed in acts of violence, but a champion for those who can still be saved from such acts.
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, spoke at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Tuesday as a part of an ongoing series throughout Black History Month. While Fulton’s storm may be freshly passed, it seems to have already left a deep mark on everyone who came in contact with it—a mark that will surely stand the test of time.
“I have two sons,” Fulton is fond of saying. “One in heaven and one on earth.”
The saying reflects the dual nature of Fulton’s quest: to keep alive the memory of Trayvon and the tragedy of his death, but also to look out for those yet living and enactpositive change. Fulton often wears a pin depicting Trayvon’s face, not to remind herself of her late son who she thinks about every day, but to remind her audience of the 17-year-old young man who was killed three years ago.
“When we first started, it was all about Trayvon,” Fulton said in a brief press event before the speaking engagement.
Since then, she has heard “the same type of stories” from the people she has met along the way. Fulton sees herself as a “voice for the voiceless,” not only of her voiceless son, but of all silenced victims of violence. “You don’t hear about their names; you don’t hear about their cases.”
When asked about her advice to the survivors of Omaha’s recent violence, Fulton empathized and urged Omaha’s survivors to advocate for change.
“Speaking out has helped my healing process,” Fulton said. “Be a part of that change.”
The presentation was given in front of a “sold-out” crowd in the Milo Bail Student Center ballroom (though no tickets were actually sold for the free event, reservations ran out quickly.) The packed house was fully invested in Fulton’s presentation, breaking out in applause, laughter and a few enthusiastic “amens”.
Fulton devoted the first part ofher allotted time to relating herstory, giving the audience an idea of where she came from and what kind of life was interrupted. She described herself in the time before the shooting as “an average mom,” working for a yearly family vacation and dragging her sons to church. However, after what happened to Trayvon, she knew that her old life couldn’t continue.
“The worst day of my life was going to [Trayvon’s] funeral,” Fulton said, describing the feeling of seeing her lifeless son and being unable to stand up in his defense. “I absolutely had to stand up for my son.”
Fulton spent the rest of her time urging change.
“I cannot focus on these negative people,” Fulton said.
Rather, Fulton emphasized the need for positive movement and unity.
“Are you doing your part or are you a part of the problem?” Fulton questioned the audience.
Complacency, in Fulton’s eyes, is the ultimate failure.
“We can no longer pretend … I cannot take off the color of my skin,” Fulton said.
For Fulton, it’s important that human rights are recognized and that individuals are shown respect regardless of race. After all, as she noted, we all wear hoodies.
In the Q&A session following her speech, Fulton reiterated her stance on the police and law.
“I don’t have anything against police,” Fulton said, sharing that her own father and other relatives were members of the force.
She holds a similar view of law, even the self-defense laws that played a role in leaving her son’s killer off the hook. In both cases, Fulton prefers to emphasize the role of individuals. Before you change laws, you must change minds.
Rather than pin blame on any one system or group, Fulton urged people to work together. Fulton has risen above the unthinkable tragedy of losing a son to become a powerful, positive voice in the ongoing, evermore polarizing discussion of race and violence across the nation.