Today, February 26, marks the day Trayvon Martin was killed. He would have turned 27 on February 5.
His death is a tragedy for those who loved and cherished him. For Black America, it was another reminder how this country continued its racist tendencies with our people’s lives.
A generation barely removed from the memory of Emmett Till half a century ago, Trayvon has inspired a new, bold, expressive, and activated representation of Black life. Black life that matters and impacts the world in revolutionary ways, daily. What united us in the wake of his death has given birth to a dream that’s fueled by love, engagement, and community.
At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to racism and injustice throughout the country while advocating for the hundreds of Black men, women and children who have fallen since that tragic night of Feb. 26, 2012. From a simple #BlackLivesMatter to #SayTheirNames, on the frontlines, heart wrenchingly through it all, has been the “Mothers of the Movement,” a group of women whose Black children have been slain by police officers or gun violence.
Reshaping American politics, society, and daily conversations regarding racism and police brutality in this country has not been easy, but the work is necessary and has been worthwhile because of efforts by Gwen Carr (Eric Garner’s mother), U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath (Jordan Davis’s mother), Lezley McSpadden (Michael Brown’s mother), and more, including Mrs. Sybrina Fulton.
A source of strength, poise, and power, Mrs. Fulton has had to deal with a lot over the past decade. And the thought of answering past-tense questions about her son feels like a gut punch for a mother who should enjoy her son with her in the here-and-now.
ESSENCE had the honor of speaking with Mrs. Fulton ahead of his birthday, where she opened up about a rare conversation with the late Afeni Shakur, mother of the late Tupac Shakur, the movement, and a new generation of leaders.
ESSENCE: The “Mothers of the Movement” have been a part of multiple activations and engagements over the past decade. How have they personally been there for you then and now with the 10th anniversary of Trayvon’s passing approaching?
Sybrina Fulton: The “Mothers of the Movement” are extremely important to me. When they say, ‘I know how you feel,’ they actually know how I feel because they’ve gone through similar trauma that I have experienced. They’ve gone through the same tragedy that I have gone through with losing a child due to senseless gun violence.
Just to be around them and know that I’m not weathering this storm alone has been a balm. When Hillary Clinton reached out to us [in 2016] she actually listened to our pain. From that particular moment, we came together at the “Mothers of the Movement,” wanting to not only move legislation forward, but to connect ourselves politically. And not only is it important to push ahead the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but with us as mothers, this has been important to bring us together politically.
ESSENCE: How do you see yourselves and the “Mothers of the Movement” raising awareness about the voting rights issue and encouraging all Americans to get out and cast their ballots?
Sybrina Fulton: We are definitely conducting voter registrations and making sure people are going out to vote, which is very important to us. Whoever runs and wherever they run, the “Mothers of the Movement” will vet them through the process that we have, where we consider their values, what their issues are, who and what they support. And then we move forward with them as a group, which is ideal and [proves] that we are going to be very involved in this year’s midterm elections.
ESSENCE: The generation that represents Trayvon’s age group are now 27 and have been very active and engaged in community engagement, civil disobedience, and activations meant to protest systemic racism and injustice in this country. How do you see them reflected in your son? And how would you have seen your son amongst this group?
Sybrina Fulton: They are exceptionally woke. I love how they are participating in the election process, but [I must say], it could be more. We could be doing more work to support them and their efforts. We can help this generation to achieve greatness as they’re coming behind us. I think that’s what we need to do and what I see as important is to have more young folks, celebrities, whoever — speak out about how important it is to vote. Our young people are very impressionable and I’d love to see some of these famous faces out there joining them in the streets.
If they could stand alongside them to do something positive together — show it to the multiple of millions of followers they have on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, that would be great to witness that happening. I want to see more people documenting that they’ve registered to vote and encouraging others to do the same. I think this generation is going to get it right, but people my age need to help persuade them and others to get out and vote.
ESSENCE: What would Trayvon Martin have accomplished in your opinion had he reached age 27?
Sybrina Fulton: My oldest son and Trayvon grew up in the same household with the same mother and father. I think Trayvon would have finished college by now. He probably would be working in aviation somehow. He would have his own place and be very independent. [Laughs] I don’t see any kids, but he would be in a relationship because he always had a lot of friends. I just would love to see him well and leading a good and productive life.
ESSENCE: Recently, the Tupac Estate unveiled ‘Wake Me When I’m Free,’ an exhibit in Los Angeles that shares the story of family and the mother-son dynamic between Afeni and Tupac Shakur. You and your son are revered by the Black community despite the tragedy associated. What do you think people would view the connected legacy between Trayvon and yourself as we get closer to the 10th anniversary of his passing?
Sybrina Fulton: Personally, I’d say that it took my son to be shot down for me to stand up. I encourage parents, both mothers and fathers, to speak up and speak out when you see something that’s not right in your community. People have a tendency to believe that you don’t care when you’re silent, but I ask people to make a difference in hopes of making a positive change.
I feel people would connect us, myself and Tracy, as the voices for Trayvon, and we have to be because he’s not here. Also, there is a history that needs cemented, which we can do as his parents.
ESSENCE: Were there any conversations between you and Afeni that you may be able to share?
Sybrina Fulton: Yes, yes. Ms. Afeni was the first keynote speaker for Circle of Mothers, which is a healing group for women who lost someone due to gun violence. At first, I was told that she doesn’t speak publicly and that she only runs a foundation out of Atlanta. Even though people were saying that she was not going to do it, I wrote a letter to her and when she wrote back, it was very inspirational. She told me that she’d be glad to come and when she did, she encouraged everyone by saying that she had never been in a room of her peers.
Ms. Afeni considered us her peers because she lost Tupac and we lost our children, connecting us in a powerful way. In this room full of women, we were listening to his mother telling us how she got through it, building us up by saying that we could, too. It was very deep, trust me.
ESSENCE: There’s a concerted effort to use television and film to expound on the traumatic histories and stories from Black America’s past. From ‘Women of the Movement’ to ‘Till,’ do you and Mr. Tracy Martin have any similar plans to produce projects in Trayvon’s name in the near future?
Sybrina Fulton: At some point in time, you just want to speak your truth, right? I don’t want families to get comfortable with losing their loved ones and go through life as if it is just business as usual. We can’t let our guard down when it comes to applying pressure to stop people from killing our young men, women, and other people of color.
They have to be held accountable. I’ve heard about the Emmett Till show, and I always remember and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We are never going to forget what happened to any of those we’ve lost, and we want everyone that we haven’t forgotten. The book we have, Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, details how we felt as parents. We also have a six-part docu-series that has aired on Paramount+ and BET.
It’s very hard to watch because Tracy and I are speaking and you can hear and see how we felt about Trayvon before this happened, while sitting in the courtroom, and about the media and the interviews. At this point, I am talking about the tragedy because it is part of your healing. It’s important to know that I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to speak up about what happened with my son.
ESSENCE: In your recently shared essay, you highlight how the emotional trauma from that tragedy eventually became a source of motivation. Would you be able to share any advice to those who are also dealing with grief?
Sybrina Fulton: I lost my unarmed 17-year-old son, so nobody was expecting me to be OK. In dealing with the grief, I put myself in a position where I had to talk to God more and that’s very important. I had to lean on, trust in, and believe in God — even though I didn’t know which direction to go in — I had to blindly trust Him.
Through this senseless gun violence, I started to reach out to other mothers to [grieve with them], to encourage them, and I ended up ministering to myself as much as these mothers. You have to uplift yourself. You have to get back up when you fall down. A lot of the time, we look to other people to do that for us, which is good, but sometimes we need to learn how to cover ourselves and be resilient.
ESSENCE: Is that what inspired the title for ‘How Far We Have Not Come’ essay?
Sybrina Fulton: The title is because we’ve managed to come a few steps forward and we have moved a few steps back. I say that as I’m thinking right now about George Floyd, about Ahmaud Aubrey, and how those who wronged these men have been convicted. We have moved forward thanks to the conviction, but it still hurts my heart that we had to deeply lose in order for us to move forward.
We still don’t have Ahmaud Arbery. We still don’t have George Floyd, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Dontre Hamilton, Brian Taylor — regardless if we get a conviction or not. We’re not where we need to be yet, we’re moving two steps forward — but if you look at the sacrifice we’re making by losing all of these loved ones that is just something that doesn’t escape my mind.
Thinking about all that we have to endure just to move two steps ahead is the part that hurts me internally.
ESSENCE: Many people will be joining you to take those steps forward during the Peace March on Feb. 5, which is Trayvon’s birthday.
Sybrina Fulton: Yes, the event is on Feb. 5, his actual birthday, and I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. He would’ve been 27-years-old. I miss him. I can’t express in words how much I miss him. And I know that there was a purpose in all of this pain. I know that, I understand that, but by the same token, I wish I had that tall, handsome, long legged son with me. He was very affectionate, very family-oriented, and I believe that America got this one wrong.
We will be celebrating his birthday and not his death. I don’t know how I’ll feel, but I’ll allow myself to do whatever on that particular day. Feb. 5 was the day that he was born — and as any mother will tell you, the date their child is born is a happy one. The purpose of the Peace Walk is to let our young people know, let our community know, that Trayvon had the right to walk in peace without being followed, chased, pursued, profiled or killed.
From there, we’ll have the Peace Talk, which incorporates elected officials, pastors, artists, and the community as a whole. I hope this inspires us to be resilient and keep [Trayvon’s] legacy alive. That’s what this is all about.