The killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African-American high school student gunned down by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., has rocketed into the national conscience—and black members of Congress want to make sure it stays there.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who said last week that she has known Martin’s family most of her life, announced she would take to the House floor every day until she believes justice is served.
“I am tired of burying young black boys,” Wilson said in an impassioned speech.
African-American lawmakers were among those who led the charge to demand a Justice Department investigation (since launched) into the Martin case and have complained that local police have been slow to make an arrest. The shooter, George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense, sparking discussion of Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat from a confrontation. After the shooting, Martin was found with no weapons, just a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy.
Congressional Black Caucus spokeswoman Stephanie Young said that the CBC plans to introduce a resolution concerning the case on Monday. Later in the week, Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, are organizing a hearing on hate-crimes enforcement.
“We are not going to let this rest without finding some relief and rest for this family,” Jackson Lee said on the House floor.
Efforts to keep a spotlight on the case got an enormous boost when President Obama weighed in on Friday. Obama typically brushes aside off-topic questions (he had been asked about the Martin case at an event where he named his pick to head the World Bank), but he addressed the issue in deeply personal terms.
“All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen,” Obama said. “You know, if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
That same day, organizers, including black congressional staffers, put together a rally on the steps of the Capitol designated as “Hoodies on the Hill,” named for the type of sweatshirt Martin was wearing the day he was killed. “Next Time It Could Be You …” the rally invitation read in red type.
Brandon Andrews, president of the African-American Men on the Hill staff association, said he once lived in Florida and walked the same streets as Martin. “It could have been me,” he told the crowd, adding that they had a mandate to end racial injustice.
Among the attendees was Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who recalled a time when a police officer in San Diego singled him out as a black man as the basis of a neighbor’s “suspicious person” complaints. “We need to do more to make justice flow like waters and righteousness flow like a mighty stream,” Black told the crowd.
For African-American lawmakers, the focus is on expanding the scope of the public debate beyond the killing of Martin to the broader issue of racial profiling.
In one of her speeches, Wilson related the case to the 2006 death of another young African-American, Martin Lee Anderson, whose death in a Florida youth-detention center sparked public outcry.
“Well, guess what? In Florida, [now] we have another Martin—Trayvon Martin,” she said.
This article appears in the March 26, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.