Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford African American Studies Center. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 05 July 2020

Martin, Trayvon Benjamin free

(5 Feb. 1995 – 26 Feb. 2012),
  • Caryn E. Neumann

A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.

a teenager shot and killed by a neighborhood watch patroller, in a case that attracted massive publicity, was born in Miami, Florida, the second son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. His older brother, Jahvaris Fulton, was a college student at the time of the incident. Sybrina Fulton, a native of Miami, graduated from Florida Memorial University with a bachelor's degree in English and worked at the Miami-Dade County Housing Development Agency. Tracy Martin worked as a truck driver. Both parents lived in Miami Gardens. They divorced in 1999, but both stayed active in raising their son. Trayvon Martin, a high school junior, had expressed a hope to secure a career in aviation like his maternal uncle.

On the evening of Sunday, 26 February 2012, Martin returned from a visit to a 7-Eleven convenience store to the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, near Orlando, Florida, where his father's girlfriend lived. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, a resident of the gated community, spotted Martin walking with the hood on his sweatshirt raised and talking on his cellphone. Zimmerman, a white Latino, who served as the leader of the Sanford police-sanctioned neighborhood watch, called police to report that Martin was “suspicious.” He did so using profanity-laden language, which subsequently led many people to deduce that he had racially profiled Martin. The police officer on the other end of the line told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin.

Meanwhile, Martin told his friend on the phone that a “creepy” man kept looking at him and was following him. Martin continued walking to his father's fiancée's home. A struggle between Martin and Zimmerman subsequently occurred, the precise circumstances of which remain strongly in dispute. Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him, causing injuries. Those who proclaimed Martin's innocence maintained that Zimmerman had attacked the youth. Transcripts of 911 calls to the police indicate that a man was screaming for help but it is unclear whether this individual was Martin or Zimmerman. At 7:17 pm Zimmerman fired one shot from a 9mm handgun that killed Martin. The teenager, who lacked identification, died about a dozen doors away from his father's girlfriend's home and was taken to the morgue as a John Doe. Tracy Martin thought that his son had gone to a late-night movie and did not file a missing person's report until the next day.

The police accepted Zimmerman's story of self-defense. However, Martin's supporters pointed out that his nickname was “Mouse” because of his quiet, mild-mannered demeanor and strongly disputed whether he was the type of person to launch a murderous attack on a stranger.

Frustrated by the refusal of the Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman, Tracy Martin contacted a civil rights attorney, Benjamin Crump. The attorney took the case to the media and organized a series of rallies demanding justice for Trayvon. The racial aspects of the case made it into a cause célèbre. International media likened the case to that of Emmett Till , a black Chicago teenager killed because of his race while visiting Mississippi in 1955. Black parents spoke to the media about the warnings that they gave their sons about walking in public and their fears that their sons could wind up dead under similar circumstances. President Barack Obama stated if he had a son, the boy would look like Martin. Meanwhile, contributions to the George Zimmerman Legal Defense Fund from those who believed the neighborhood watchman's actions were justified reached more than $300,000.

To a large degree, the case was tried in the media with supporters of Martin and of Zimmerman alternately challenging the innocence of each protagonist. Reporters revealed that Martin had been suspended from high school for tardiness, for writing “WTF” on a locker, and for possession of marijuana. (The coroner later reported that Martin had THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system.) Unlike Martin, Zimmerman had a police record. In 2005 he shoved an undercover officer attempting to arrest a friend for underage drinking. The charges were dropped when he entered a pretrial diversion program that included anger management classes.

On 11 April 2012 Sanford police arrested Zimmerman; his trial began on 10 June 2013. Under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which became highly controversial, prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had not acted in self-defense. Zimmerman testified that he shot Martin as the boy reached for his gun. Zimmerman also stated that Martin threatened to kill him after pounding his head dozens of times on the concrete sidewalk. Court evidence confirmed that Zimmerman had some torn flesh on the back of his head. However, Zimmerman had a concealed carry permit and his concealed gun was in his waistband by his backside as he lay on his back. Martin's attorneys claimed that the youth would have had to see through Zimmerman's body to spot the gun—on a dark, rainy night with little visibility. The coroner reported—after the trial—that bullet fragments in Martin's lungs indicated that he would not have been able to speak after being shot, contrary to Zimmerman's claim.

Major news organizations CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC broadcast opening statements, the testimony of key witnesses, and, as ratings grew, the testimony of all witnesses in the Zimmerman case. HLN broadcast every moment of the trial, gavel-to-gavel. Prime-time specials were devoted to analyzing the trial, while network television—NBC, CBS, and ABC—covered the story on morning shows and on national news programs. Print media from the New York Times to the website TMZ published thousands of stories about the proceedings, while over three million videos relating to the trial appeared on YouTube. On 13 July 2013 Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Massive nationwide protests followed, in which many demonstrators wore a hooded sweatshirt and carried Skittles and an Arizona-brand watermelon drink, as Martin had done the night he was shot returning from a 7-Eleven.

The Trayvon Martin case became part of a nationwide discussion on race, crime, and policing, when the violent deaths of several other black men, including the 2014 cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York prompted widespread public protests.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Lisa. Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It (2014).
  • Cashill, Jack. “If I Had a Son”: Race, Guns, and the Railroading of George Zimmerman (2013).
  • Johnson, Craig. “Who Are Trayvon Martin's Parents?” HLN, 26 Mar. 2012. http://www.hlntv.com/video/2012/03/26/who-are-trayvon-martins-parents-they-killed-my-son
  • Jonsson, Patrik. “Who is George Zimmerman, and Why Did He Shoot Trayvon Martin?” Christian Science Monitor, 24 Mar. 2012.
  • Jonsson, Patrik. “Gun Grab? No Trayvon Martin DNA on George Zimmerman's Gun, Expert Says.” Christian Science Monitor, 3 July 2013.