The committee that organized Clemson University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration for 2016 chose to begin its title “Honest conversations.”
When the keynote speaker, Sybrina Fulton, took the stage at the Brooks Center for Performing Arts, that’s what she said she’d deliver.
Fulton does not speak with the polish of a public speaker or the carefully prepared remarks of a noted lecturer. Rather, she speaks candidly, with a rawness as she recollected and retold tragic events that have not yet grown cold in her memory.
“I’m a mother and I speak to you as a mother,” Fulton told an audience that nearly filled the Brooks Center for Clemson’s 34th annual MLK Celebration.
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Fulton is the mother of two boys. One is a college graduate with an IT degree. The other is Trayvon Martin, her 17-year-old son who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012 while Martin walked along a street in Samford, Florida.
Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain and mixed-race Hispanic who carried a loaded handgun, was eventually charged and acquitted of Martin’s murder in a case that drew months of national media attention.
The incident sparked nationwide unrest, including protests in Greenville, and it galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement that has brought attention to incidents of violence against young, unarmed black men and children.
Fulton called herself an average mom living an average life as a working mother when her life was interrupted by an event that’s forever shaped her future.
Overnight, her family was thrust into the national spotlight, and Tuesday evening, she spoke of how she handled her son’s death and how she’s become an advocate against gun violence and for respect of black youth through the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
She did not want to become a spokesperson, she said. She described a brokenness in the days and weeks following Martin’s death. Nights spent crying on the floor, hurt, disappointed, “just broken,” she said.
“I still have a hard time dealing with what happened,” she said.
Martin was a boy walking home, talking to a girl on the phone. He was not perfect, she said. He had been suspended from school after marijuana residue was found in his bookbag. But he was doing nothing wrong on this night, she said.
And “somebody perceived my child as being a threat,” she said.
That someone could follow, stalk, chase and kill her son because of a perception is the crisis Fulton said she must speak out about, she said.
The fact that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law hasn’t changed and that unarmed black men have been dying in highly publicized cases across the country shows the nation’s judicial system is broken and has created an ongoing reason for her to share her story, she said.
“It’s as if their lives don’t matter,” she said. “And of course we don’t have anything against All Lives Matter. We certainly know that all lives matter. The reason why Black Lives Matter is so important for us to say is because we are acknowledging at that particular moment that right now in this country we have a crisis on the black lives.”
What the country’s races need are to begin to treat each other with dignity again, she said. Not even to love each other, but just to respect each other and treat each other with decency, she said.
That would help heal the hurt of the most painful day of her life, when Fulton saw her son lying in a white suit in a casket “as if he was going to the prom.”
“These are stories to you,” she said. “But this is our lives.”