Tracy Martin readily admits he struggles with regular bouts of guilt over the fate of his 17-year-old son, Trayvon. He wasn’t at home in Sanford, Florida, the night his unarmed son was shot and killed as he walked home from the store with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona Ice Tea.
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, was found not guilty of the second-degree murder of the teenager earlier this month after his lawyers argued it was self-defense.
“I think I feel the guilt that any father would feel who loses a child,’’ Martin told The Daily Beast. “There is a certain amount of guilt at not being able to save my son, and not being able to be there for him like he was for me when he saved me from a fire when he was 9 years old. I couldn’t do that for him as a parent and that is a very painful feeling to live with. But I also know, had I been home, I wouldn’t have heard the incident so I wouldn’t have been able to stop what happened.’’
Martin took a heartfelt message of fatherly love to Capitol Hill on Wednesday where he urged Congress to work to improve the educational and employment opportunities for young Latinos and African-Americans.
Only 52 percent of black males graduate from high school, compared with 78 percent of white, non-Latino males, according to a 2012 report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Black males are incarcerated at a rate more than nine times that of white males ages 18–19, according to the 2011 Bureau of Justice figures.
Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress, and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-IL) organized the inaugural hearing of the Congressional Black Caucus on Black Men and Boys to discuss the many obstacles and issues that continue to face black men. Martin said President Obama’s speech last week referencing the murder and trial for his son only increased his resolve to work nonstop to change the lives of young men of color. He and Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, founded the Trayvon Martin Foundation last year to raise awareness of the way violent crime impacts the families of victims.
“I have to fight for Trayvon and all who look like him,’’ said Martin. “There is an assumption by many in this country that our boys aren’t valuable and don’t to have the right to walk home with iced tea and Skittles without being considered criminals. There is an assumption that they aren’t raised well and aren’t loved. My son was loved and was raised to respect authority. He knew how to handle himself but that wasn’t enough that night.’’
Martin had regular father-and-son talks with Trayvon, and those conversations often included a mature, in-depth discussion about handling life as a black man in America.
“As a child gets older of course the conversation changes,’’ says Martin. “As Trayvon got older we didn’t talk about Disneyland anymore. We talked about life, decisions, and the future. I think this country feels black men aren’t fathers and aren’t there for their children. That is very far from the truth. Many black men are role models and that needs to be discussed.’’
Martin welcomed President Obama’s words last week on the need for more effort to uplift and support African-American men. He said it was timely and heartfelt despite a number of critical reviews by the Fox News network and PBS host Tavis Smiley.
“I thought he was speaking honestly from his own experience of being a black man and how he could have been Trayvon 35 years ago,’’ said Martin. “That was powerful and from deep in his heart, I think. His speech was very real. To have the most powerful man in the world talk about my son and what he’s meant to people was amazing, needed and very appreciated.’’
While speaking before Congress on Wednesday, Martin discussed the anguish he and Sybrina felt as their son’s name was slandered and demonized during Zimmerman’s trial.
“Trayvon was a teenager, a child. To hear people act as though he was someone on the same level as an adult man who’s lived life, had a job, and married was very hurtful for us. To have people put all the blame on my son who was unarmed and just walking home is something that is very difficult to digest still,” he said.
The Martin family has asked for reform of Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law, which permits the use of deadly force rather than retreating when a person has a reasonable fear of serious bodily harm.
“There should be a common sense part to that law that states you can’t get out of your vehicle, pursue someone, and become confrontational,’’ said Martin.
Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, described the teenager’s family as “extremely disturbed” by Juror B37, who appeared on a CNN show just a day after the not-guilty verdict was announced. That juror suggested that Martin “played a huge role” in his own death.
“That was really hard for Tracy and Sybrina to hear a juror blame their son for his own death,’’ said Crump. “It has no base in common sense and shows that she, along with the other jurors, never saw this case from the perspective of Trayvon. They never saw his point of view or tried to put themselves in his shoes as a kid minding his business and walking home. They didn’t consider that Zimmerman never identified who he was to Trayvon. Had he done that we probably wouldn’t be here today.’’
While singer Stevie Wonder has announced a boycott of the state of Florida until “stand your ground” laws are overturned, Martin says he and Trayvon’s mother will continue to work toward ensuring their son’s legacy is one that is remembered for generations to come.
“We will define Trayvon’s legacy as his parents, and I feel it will be a legacy of helping people to open their eyes and talk about subjects they wouldn’t before, like race and the role it still plays today,’’ said Martin. “I hope my son will be remembered as someone whose life and death changed minds and helped make the lives of many others much better.’’