Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, whose 17-year-old son Trayvon Martin was fatally shot three years ago, opened up about their grief and their commitment to combating the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic profiling during Tufts Hillel’s eighth annual Merrin Distinguished Lecture Series in Cohen Auditorium Tuesday night.
Since the day Trayvon was killed while out buying snacks by a man who identified him as “suspicious,” his parents’ lives have been torn open.
“It’s not just a case for me. It’s not just a trial for me,” Fulton said. “It’s my life.”
An initiative of Hillel, the Merrin Moral Voices program plans a keynote lecture each spring to “raise a moral voice” on a social justice issue, according to Moral Voices Chair Ariana Nestler, a senior. This year’s theme of gun violence follows a long list of issues Moral Voices has taken on, most recently gender-based violence and food justice. Along with Moral Voices, the Africana Center, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD), the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Peace and Justice Studies (PJS) program co-sponsored the event.
In her speech, Fulton described the day of her son’s funeral as the worst day of her life.
“To see my son in the front of the church dressed all in white, as if he was an angel that had fallen asleep … When you lose a child, it’s a different kind of pain,” she said. “We didn’t lose Trayvon. He was murdered. We absolutely know where he is. He’s in heaven.”
Martin said he and Fulton spent a year after their son’s death trying to understand what they could have done as parents to prevent this tragedy, growing frustrated with media mis-characterizations of their family.
“We thought we did everything in our power to raise our children to be upstanding citizens,” he said. “There’s nothing that we did wrong in raising our kids.”
Fulton said she initially did not want to come to terms with the racial biases that contributed to her son’s death.
“I didn’t want to believe that we were still in a society that judges us because of the color of our skin,” she said. “The media told me that it was because of his hoodie. I told myself it had to be the hoodie.”
But as the trial of George Zimmerman unfolded, Fulton saw how her son had been racially profiled by his killer.
“He was looking for somebody, an African-American,” she said. “What an awful mistake to make because of the color of his skin.”
While one can take off a hoodie or any other so-called “suspicious” clothing, Fulton explained, “I cannot remove the color of my skin.”
With this realization, Martin and Fulton began speaking about their experience and founded an organization, the Trayvon Martin Foundation, to address violent crime and support the families of young victims.
“Fulton has become a role model to many by turning her grief into advocacy,” N’Dea Hallett, a senior who introduced Fulton and Martin, said.
Martin said that, while they knew nothing they could say or do would bring back their son, by speaking out they could provide a “voice for the voiceless.”
“Everyone’s afraid to get to know the real us. We are passed judgment so fast,” he said. “We can be the voice for our communities.”
While Fulton described how difficult it is to speak about her son’s death, she feels it is both necessary and therapeutic.
“I just felt like I needed to do more than just cry,” Fulton said. “I think it’s a part of my healing, and it’s important that I get it out and it’s important that I say it.”
Fulton spoke about the importance of discussing issues of racial injustice in the United States, but emphasized that simply acknowledging the problem is not enough.
“Don’t just get upset,” she said. “You have to get involved. You just can’t be a silent party anymore.”
After Zimmerman was acquitted under a Florida law known as Stand Your Ground, Fulton realized that part of the problem came from within the American justice system.
“We understand that the justice system is broken,” she said. “People need open-minded people on these juries.”
She also stressed the importance of education, a key mission of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Among other programs, the Foundation currently provides some college scholarships, with plans to add more soon.
To close the talk, Africana Center Director Katrina Moore posed a challenge to the Tufts community to actively confront these issues.
“I would just like to challenge you, Tufts students, faculty, staff,” she said. “You can’t make it one person’s issue. It is all of our issue.”
Hallett, who was involved in the planning process as a student leader at the Africana Center, found Tuesday’s events both humbling and emotional.
“I think one of my peers said it best: Being able to talk with them and hear their story in person took them from being a headline to really hearing their lived experience,” she said. “I think that was really powerful, especially for a lot of black students to have that.”
Hallett said she became involved in preparations for the event to ensure that there was representation from the black community, which she thought was important given the initial controversy it garnered.
Moral Voices moved forward with the event despite audible concern from students in the Pan-African Alliance (PAA) and Black Student Union (BSU), among others. In early February, a petition drafted by the PAA on Change.org circulated the Tufts community and was supported by nearly 200 signatures.
“Simply put, we, the concerned primarily-Black students on this campus do not agree with your event which will effectively exploit the murder of Black people in order to host a superficial discussion on liberal reform — all the while completely ignoring the imperial, capitalist, White-centered, and anti-black system that you support,” the petition stated.
One student of color, who wished to remain anonymous, had attended a Moral Voices planning meeting early in February but decided not to return in the weeks leading up to the lecture.
“In that space, there were only a couple other people of color, so I don’t know that I felt comfortable asking them about race,” she told the Daily last month. “And the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable in that setting kind of alluded to me that the program itself isn’t something that I wanted to be part of. It was just kind of a feeling.”
Many students attended an open discussion with Moral Voices leadership to voice frustrations over the lack of transparency in the decision to invite Fulton and Martin to campus, which was made over winter break.
“In the fall, especially in the light of Ferguson, we felt that we couldn’t ignore the intersections between race and gun violence, and we were pretty much focusing on the social justice issues that lead to gun violence,” Nestler said. “Actually the agent of [Fulton and Martin], when he heard our topic was gun violence, he suggested them to come and speak.”
Students also showed concern for the perceived lack of people of color in the planning process, and felt the decision to co-sponsor with communities of color appeared to be an afterthought.
According to Nestler, the intent from the start was to collaborate with other organizations in an effort to plan the keynote with representatives from communities of color.
Other aspects of students’ concerns also stemmed from Moral Voices’ theme of “gun violence,” which seemed to ignore the larger systematic issue of race in the case of Trayvon Martin. The anonymous student explained that focusing on gun violence skirts around the racially charged root of the problem.
“Gun violence can go in the direction of types of guns. [So] why are the parents there … it doesn’t have much to do with that,” the student said. “It’s kind of even exploiting their traumatic experience … it’s basically like, a drunk driver talking about the car that they drove.”
Hillel’s Neubauer Executive Director and Rabbi Jeffrey Summit said that the decision to continue with the keynote as planned came after speaking with Fulton and Martin’s agent, who made clear that Fulton and Martin hoped they could share their message with the Tufts community.
“They wanted to go ahead with the lecture with Moral Voices, and they just really hoped that … students would work together in a spirit of harmony and solidarity for their lecture,” Summit said.
While Tuesday’s lecture itself was powerful, Hallett reiterated the significance of continuing the conversation on campus, where these issues affect students each day.
“I think it’s important for the campus to really try to dive into these issues more than on a surface level, because, like, although these experiences are just headlines to us, a lot of people have these lived experiences on this campus,” Hallett said. “I think Tufts in general should step out of its bubble in the way that it thinks about these issues and really get to the root of the problem, versus skirting the surface.”