books Grief Over Time - Ten Years Since the Murder of Trayvon Martin
Her pain united a nation — that’s the inscription written in gold capital letters across Mamie Till-Mobley’s headstone. She buried her 14-year-old son, Emmett, in 1955 after white men brutally murdered him near Money, Mississippi. She left the casket open to display his mutilated body in the suit he’d gotten for Christmas the year before. Her decision helped catalyze the civil-rights movement and sparked international calls for justice. Till-Mobley became a teacher and activist who advocated in Emmett’s name until her death in 2003.
Sybrina Fulton feels honored when supporters compare her to Till-Mobley. “She’s an icon. She was the example of, you know, a strong Black woman,” she tells me in December. “And I have to say that people expect us to be strong. But the thing about it is we are strong because we have to be strong, not because we want to be strong. There’s a difference, you know?”
Three days before our conversation, she endured another Christmas without her son Trayvon Martin. It is her family’s favorite time of year. They gather, binge films, and talk trash. When Trayvon was still alive, Fulton filled the whole house with ornaments and tinsel. Now she decorates a single room.
Grief can stretch and collapse time like a Slinky. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon more than 3,000 days ago, yet only a handful of holidays have passed. Fulton still hangs a stocking for her baby. “It’s so easy to just be depressed and be sad,” she says, “but I have to remember I have another son, I have myself, I just have to keep pushing forward and just know that I do have a son in heaven. I’m making an extra effort to celebrate the holidays, to celebrate Christmas, his birthday, Mother’s Day, because all of those things remind me of him.”
My meeting with Fulton is shorter than I’d hoped, but I’m grateful for each second. The thought of answering past-tense questions about my two Black sons is unfathomable. Was Trayvon? Did Trayvon? But she speaks of him in the eternal tense that Black Christians use: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
We discuss history, her anger, and what we expect from the movements and mess that manifested in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death.
Mamie Till-Mobley’s headstone haunts me. In the 50 years between the death of the son and the death of the mother, the United States did not unite. White people, police, and politicians mostly remained unified to maintain white power — the control of land, labor, capital, and politics. White moderates criticized organizers like Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. for acting urgently for radical change. White supremacists viciously attacked Black activists for crossing the color line and white activists for being race traitors.
Black activists launched organizations, demonstrations, and rebellions to build a global liberation struggle for all oppressed people. Many other Black people disagreed with their demands and tactics. Leaders fought one another for influence and resources. Politicians called the members of these movements “communists,” making them vulnerable to blacklists, jail, exile, and death.
Thurgood Marshall tried this tactic. As the NAACP’s chief counsel, he took pride in ridding the organization of radicals and communists — the people fighting for racial and economic justice. When outspoken civil-rights leader T.R.M. Howard condemned J. Edgar Hoover for failing to investigate Emmett’s murder, Marshall defended Hoover. He collaborated with the FBI at times, probably in an attempt to protect the NAACP. He later had Hoover’s support when he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
When Till-Mobley went to Mississippi for the trial of the men accused of killing her son, she relied primarily on Howard for protection. She was thrust into a world where people with different political beliefs and affiliations were all fighting for justice. These fissures do not fit neatly into the grand civil-rights narrative we tell today.
I fear that 50 years from now, orators will praise Black mothers like Fulton for their strength and paint the diverse efforts that surrounded their tragedies the same color. It would be tempting. Unlike in Till-Mobley’s era, social justice has become fashionable. You can find BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on gray city streets or displayed on teleprompters at the Democratic National Convention. History books might describe Trayvon’s killing as a blemish on an otherwise increasingly attractive society for Black people.
By 2012, this story might go, the U.S. wasn’t the Jim Crow country that stole little Black boys’ lives for whistling at white women. Marshall had retired from the Supreme Court, and Clarence Thomas filled the seat. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had spent nearly a decade directing foreign affairs. Eric Holder headed the Department of Justice. Oprah Winfrey was a billionaire. Most remarkably, President Barack Obama was in the White House.
While Black youth saw Black mobility, their bellies remained empty, cops stopped and frisked their bodies, the state closed their schools, and banks stole their parents’ homes during the mortgage crisis. White households had a median net worth near $110,000 while Black households had a median net worth of around $5,000. Four years after graduating from college, Black men and women owed an average of more than $52,000 in debt, almost twice the amount owed by our white counterparts. We watched drone strikes in Afghanistan increase year after year and witnessed a white supremacist kill six Sikhs at a temple. Police said they couldn’t know his motive. We were living the daily crises of what Dr. King had called the evils of capitalism, racism, and militarism. And if we dared to walk in a middle-class suburb while wearing a hoodie like Trayvon, or to blast rap music at a gas station like Jordan Davis, a white man could kill us, go home, and order pizza.
Diversity was not a reflection of our power. It was a mirage.
“Before I lost Trayvon, I can tell you I was living just a regular life,” Fulton explains. “I had not been to a march at all. I’m not telling people, you know, that ‘Oh, I’ve been this community activist all my life.’ No, I have not.” She laments her lack of involvement. “Don’t wait till it comes to your front door, like I did,” she says.
Till-Mobley felt similarly in 1955: “Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South, I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
Fulton adds, “I mean, I knew that things were going on, but who had any clue that it was this bad? I don’t believe that I knew, or even my parents knew, that it was this bad. So blatant and so deliberate and that the justice system was so unfair.” This surprises me. I assumed that, as a Black woman raised down South, she would know. But Black people live different lives. She says she had a “sheltered” middle-class upbringing in Miami; her father was a cop, her mother a postal worker: “We went on vacation every year. We had two cars. We chased the ice-cream truck when we heard the music playing. We jump rope, we hopscotch.”
Fulton did not know anyone who had suffered a gunshot wound until she was an adult. I am sad that I am surprised. I tell her I grew up with bullet shells near playground sandboxes. I also realize that while she, Till-Mobley, and I share Black motherhood, we have class and generational differences that help shape our activism.
Trayvon’s death shocked the world. Thousands rallied, including me. We launched petitions for Zimmerman’s arrest. The Dream Defenders formed in Florida as a Black and multiracial organization to fight for racial justice. Their protests shut down the Sanford Police Department station because more than 40 days after the killing, cops had still not detained Zimmerman. Police used the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law as the reason no arrest had been made. When they finally detained him, we thought we had won.
Prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. A jury announced, “Not guilty.” Politicians issued widespread calls for peace and for protesters to accept the jury’s decision.
I ask Fulton, “What makes you angry about what’s happened in the past ten years?”
Journalists poke and prod Black parents about whether they fear for their Black child in this country or forgive their child’s murderers. (Nobody ever asks white parents if they fear their child will inherit the power to take a Black life.) As time slinks, the poking and prodding slides from questions about forgiveness and fear to questions about healing and hope. But a Black family’s rage can reveal criticisms that their fear and hope cannot.
“What makes me angry is the fact that you have so many people that want to do something, but they don’t. You got so many people who comment and who post and who are talking heads on the news, and what are they doing? Nothing.” Fulton’s eyebrows arch inward, and she raises her pitch and pace. “You have to be active. You have to participate. You have to get involved. Those are the types of things that make me angry. You can’t just share a story on social media and figure, Okay, I did my part, you know?”
She is describing how online activism became an end rather than a tactic. Ten years ago, activists’ ability to instantly communicate worldwide felt like a cause for celebration. Social media served us before it became our master. It facilitated new forms of visibility and privileged popularity over accuracy. Internet capital created real capital — honoraria, deals, careers. An influencer-industrial complex emerged and urged people to join “the movement” by simply liking, sharing, subscribing — and donating. Grassroots organizers increasingly struggled to find people willing to attend meetings, engage in direct actions, and transform themselves alongside their neighbors over time. Organizations need members, not just followers.
Fulton’s criticism also echoes a choir of spectators who reject movements because of fights over finances, brands, and visibility. But no movement is without its mess. This is true for slavery abolition and prison abolition, Black Power and ACT UP, Fees Must Fall and the Landless Workers Movement. We need each other to practice principled disagreement while protecting our ultimate goal of liberation, and to create the best possible versions of these movements as we do so. Part of this requires exactly what Fulton is telling us to do: Be active.
Incarcerated organizers, for example, create social-media strategies that mobilize outside pressure on the state to improve conditions inside and release people from prison. Grassroots campaigns raise millions of dollars online to provide direct monetary relief to our neighbors facing eviction, joblessness, medical bills, student debt, and violence at home, work, and school. Social media has expanded our ability to learn and teach new concepts and ideas across mediums. Movements are not made by these moments alone, but by our capacity to use them to build large-scale power, pressure, and action.
I was affirmed by her anger because I’d felt it, too.
“Know something else that makes me angry?” Fulton continues. “When a situation happens and people get involved and they jump on the bandwagon of that tragedy. And then they leave that family and hop on to another family. And then they leave that family and hop on to another family. Yeah. There’s a pattern in all of this.” Her southern accent takes on a sermonic cadence. “And so I, I, I do what, what I call Circle of Mothers, where I bring mothers from all over the United States. A lot of the mothers that you probably heard of. I bring about a hundred mothers a year to Miami. It’s about bonding, healing, and empowerment. And what I tell them is, ‘You’re gonna see a lot of people come around you right now, but those people gonna slowly drift away if you don’t have the same agenda in mind that they have.’ ”
This is a recurring theme in high-profile racial tragedies. Mothers are accused of hustling their children’s deaths. Attorneys are accused of hustling mourning mothers. Activists are accused of hustling the hype.
“Just be sharp and, and just know what direction you headed in, and stay focused on what your agenda is because you know what you wanna do for your child,” she says. “Nobody should come in from your city or a different city or different state to tell you what you should be doing.”
This tension split the Black community nearly 70 years ago. When a jury found Emmett Till’s murderers not guilty, Till-Mobley publicly condemned the verdict at considerable risk to her own life. The NAACP witnessed her ability to pack rallies and invited her to raise awareness, membership, and money for the organization. She agreed. The organization paid her living expenses and a small honorarium because she was no longer working.
Till-Mobley spoke to thousands of people and raised thousands of dollars. NAACP membership increased. Its president Roy Wilkins warned her to stay away from radicals and communists. She was eventually hospitalized owing to stress and asked her father to join her for security and support. The NAACP agreed to pay. Shortly before a tour to California, she requested $5,000 to cover the mounting debt and bills she had accumulated while speaking on their behalf (the writer who published the confession of Emmett’s murderers received $7,500 for the article and $25,000 for a movie deal). Wilkins refused. According to her memoir, he shouted at her on the phone, “You’re trying to capitalize on the death of your son.” She hung up. Till-Mobley offered to continue touring underpaid because she was willing to sacrifice for the message. The NAACP stopped representing her and continued to use Emmett’s name to raise money.
Now lawyerless, Till-Mobley launched her own campaigns. She advocated against the death penalty and for reparations. She worked to reopen Emmett’s case. She wrote in her posthumously released memoir, “Mine is not just the passion of an aggrieved mother. This should be the sentiment of an entire nation. As long as the Emmett Till murder is unresolved, this case will sit there like a thorn in the side of our sense of justice and fair play.” The FBI eventually opened a cold-case investigation into Emmett’s murder in 2004, after Till-Mobley died, and closed it without resolution in December 2021, three weeks before I spoke with Sybrina Fulton.
Fulton says that once you know better, you do better: “And so me knowing better, I’m doing better because now I know my eyes are open, and I tell a lot of people, ‘Listen!’ The people don’t know ’cuz they got cataracts over their eyes. They don’t know. And so once you remove the cataracts, once you remove the rose-colored glasses, then you really see what America is. It’s an emergency on people of color. You can no longer sit back and just wait for somebody else.” She praised the mothers of Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Dontre Hamilton, and Hadiya Pendleton, who embraced activism after losing their children. She’s also hopeful that the younger generation will make major changes because people her age, in their 50s, are “already set in their ways.”
Major changes sometimes come with major disagreements, even from the people whose strength inspires you, like Fulton. So many of us who were inspired to organize for Zimmerman’s prosecution and arrest have since recognized the limitations of the legal system. After realizing that the president, the FBI, the DOJ, Congress, and the courts are incapable of protecting Black communities from police and vigilante violence, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, a younger generation has increased calls to abolish the prison-industrial complex.
Fulton, in contrast, still believes in the promise of the criminal-justice system. “I’m proud that now people have opened their eyes. They open their eyes to the video on their cameras. They’re reporting information a little more. People are being arrested for the crimes that they commit, and they’re being convicted for the crimes that they commit,” she says. “And so that is a step toward progress.” The pain and urgency in her voice reminds me of something the scholar Joy James once said: “Outrage and resistance are guided by love, and the desire to bring honor to life brutally taken.” Fulton, and so many families, seek to bring honor for their loved ones through the established means we have today, even if it is part of the system that created the injustice.
Fulton has been relentless. Alongside Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, she launched the Trayvon Martin Foundation, in 2012. They co-wrote a book, and Fulton testified in front of a Senate panel to request revisions to “stand your ground” laws in 2013. She further pleaded at a televised civil-rights convention that year, “My message to you is please use my story, please use my tragedy, please use my broken heart to say to yourself, ‘We cannot let this happen to anybody else’s child.’ ” She met with the DOJ in 2015 and was not surprised when Eric Holder announced that he would not bring hate-crime charges against Zimmerman. In 2019, she ran for the Miami-Dade County Commission with hopes to create affordable housing and tackle gun violence. She lost by less than one percent. In a new essay, “Trayvon: Ten Years Later,” she writes, “I want to teach a generation how to be strong without suffering my loss.”
Her quest for systemic change and the movement’s demand for abolition emerge from a similar place of love and rage, a reaction to our government’s failure to protect us from the violence it perpetuates and sanctions.
In another ten years, I hope we honor those we’ve lost and tell the truth about the different ways we fought to protect the living. There’s a liberal ease that suggests that “we all want the same thing.” Perhaps we should not. I hope instead for a culture of love, rigorous and principled debate, and deep experimentation in our strivings for justice. Most important, we must do the work that will make it hard for anyone to tell a simple story about how we should be remembered.
[Derecka Purnell is a lawyer, organizer, and author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. She works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training in grassroots organizations through an abolitionist framework. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Purnell co-created the COVID-19 Policing Project at the Community Resource Hub for Safety Accountability to track police arrests, harassment, citations and other enforcement through public health orders related to the pandemic. She received her JD from Harvard Law School, her BA from the University of Missouri- Kansas City, and studied public policy and economics at the University of California- Berkeley as a Public Policy and International Affairs Law Fellow. Her writing has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Boston Review, Teen Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar. Purnell has lectured, studied, and strategized around social movements across the United States, The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian, a Margaret Burroughs Fellow for the Social Justice Initiative’s Portal Project at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and a Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia Law School.]