Robert Traynham sat in the back of the bus until he was 18 years old. Growing up in West Virginia, he said, he passed three whites-only schools on his way to classes each morning. He fought the Ku Klux Klan as a Black Panther, he said, and marched on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And on Saturday afternoon in Boston, bearing a sign that read “Justice for Trayvon,” the 77-year-old marched for the 17-year-old who was shot and killed a year and a half ago in Sanford, Fla.
“This should never have happened to a young man walking home,” he said. “End of story.”
One week after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, Traynham was one of dozens who protested outside the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center, holding signs and speaking out against racial inequality and what they see as a broken justice system. Some voiced opposition to “stand your ground” laws, which do not require potential crime victims to retreat if they have a safe escape route, and instead allow them to use deadly force.
The demonstration was one of a series of “Justice for Trayvon” rallies held across the country Saturday afternoon, a movement organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who had followed Martin because, Zimmerman maintains, he thought the teenager looked suspicious. In New York, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told hundreds of cheering protesters that she is proud of her son and will work to help free other black youths from unfounded suspicion because of their skin color.
“Today it was my son,” she said at Sharpton’s headquarters in Harlem. “Tomorrow it might be yours.”
Rallies and vigils sprouted up outside federal buildings in cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta. A peaceful protest outside the federal courthouse in Springfield attracted 60 people and lasted about three hours, said Captain Cheryl Clapprood of the city’s police department.
In Boston, protesters formed a circle outside the Kennedy Building and took turns expressing their reactions to Martin’s death. Alice Hayes, 54, walked to the center of the circle with her 19-year-old grandson, Curtiss Boyd. He carried a pack of Skittles and wore a gray sweatshirt, and she pulled the hood over his head. Martin had worn a hoodie and carried Skittles the night he was shot, and they have become ubiquitous symbols in protests over his death.
“He’s wearing a hood, but he’s not in a gang, he’s not in any trouble, he’s a good kid,” Hayes said. “I don’t know what I’d do if he were killed.”
Then the crowd began to march, chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Enough is enough” down Tremont Street to Boston Common. Onlookers stopped to watch or snap photographs, and some joined in.
The nationwide rallies Saturday were especially significant because they came a day after President Obama spoke personally about race and Martin’s death in a national address, the most expansively he has addressed race since becoming president.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” The president said he was followed while shopping in department stores and used to hear the clicking of locks on the doors of cars as he walked across the street.
Hans Eugene, who marched in Boston, said he sees himself in Martin, too.
“I’m glad the president spoke about profiling,” he said. “I’m sometimes reluctant to go into certain high-end stores because people follow me and treat me suspiciously, and now I know it’s not just a figment of my imagination. What happened to Trayvon Martin, that’s real.”
Zimmerman, 29, said he shot Martin in self-defense after they fought. Martin was unarmed.
Manikka Bowman, 33, came to Government Center Saturday afternoon to seek justice for the slain teenager. “Too many black people have been killed, historically, without anyone being held accountable,” she said.
She grew up with the specter of racial violence in Lake Charles, La., she said. In 1998, when she was in high school, James Byrd, Jr., a 49-year-old black man, was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in the nearby Texas town of Jasper by three men, at least two of whom were white supremacists. Bowman said she remembered her church coming together to speak out against the violence and comfort the youth.
Stephanie Jones, 24, arrived at the protest with her grandmother, Eula Nauls, 78, a longtime activist who served as a community organizer in Roxbury and marched twice with King in Boston.
What happened to Trayvon Martin felt familiar, Jones said. A few years ago, her older brother was pulled over by a police officer late at night. When he came home, her mother had a long talk with him, advising him how to avoid trouble with law enforcement. Keep your hands visible, she told him, don’t make any sudden movements. Always address officers as “sir” or “ma’am.”
“It was a rough conversation,” Jones said. “But, for now, it’s necessary.”