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'We gotta change our ways': Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, addresses Peoria on MLK Day

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, delivers a speech in 2017.
NPR
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Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, delivers a speech in 2017.

Many people assume the worst day of Sybrina Fulton’s life was the day she learned her son Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed.

It’s not.

“The worst day of my life was the day I sat in front of my church, at the first pew, and saw my 17-year-old son laid out in casket,” she said. “In all white, as if he was going to the prom.”

From that day forward, Fulton said her life changed in ways only a parent can understand.

“There’s something about carrying a child in your stomach for 9 months, and seeing them do well … But to see them be killed, that does something to your spirit, does something to your heart, does something to who you are, as a person,” Fulton said. “If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I would not be standing before you today.”

Just one month shy of the 10-year anniversary of her son’s death, Fulton visited Peoria to speak during the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon.

With no script in hand, Fulton addressed a crowd of hundreds, candidly reflecting on what the last decade of her life has been like — private grief, public activism and more.

Sybrina Fulton pcc.jpg
Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Sybrina Fulton speaks on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Peoria Civic Center.

On Feb. 26, 2012, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin in Sanford, Fla.

At the time, the Black Lives Matter organization did not formally exist. There was no support network of mothers of Black children who had been racially profiled and killed.

Fulton said she herself was just an “average” mom of two. When she got off work from her job at Miami’s public housing office, she came home, turned on the TV, and nagged her kids to do their homework.

“That was the regular routine,” she said. “Turn the news on, start dinner, fuss with them. Average. Average. … So it was nothing at all that could have prepared me for what I was about to face.”

Rest In Power: How Trayvon Martin Inspired A Nation

In the wake of her son's death, Fulton created the Trayvon Martin Foundation in his honor. She also formed Circle of Mothers, a support group for grieving mothers like herself.

“It was a dream that I had," she said, of Circle of Mothers. "Didn’t Dr. King have a dream?”

A mural of Trayvon Martin is seen on the side of a building in the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore.
Andrew Burton
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A mural of Trayvon Martin is seen on the side of a building in the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore.

As more young Black men, women and children died in high-profile cases involving racial profiling and police brutality, Black Lives Matter grew as an organization. For the first time in her life, Fulton said she saw killers start to be held accountable.

In the last 10 years, Fulton has spoken publicly at countless organizations around the country. She co-wrote one book with Martin's father, and is working on another as a solo author.

In reflecting on the years that have passed since Martin’s death, and the uprisings and protests that have unfolded in recent years, Fulton thinks about the hooded sweatshirt her son was wearing when he died.

“The media made everybody think including myself that it was the hoodie,” she said. “It’s hot in Florida. Why was he wearing that hoodie? … I’m gonna tell you why. Because he was 17. Because he was a teenager. Because that’s considered fashion for young people … it wasn’t the hoodie. It wasn’t the hoodie. It was the fact that Trayvon’s skin was brown.”

While there’s been increased awareness and attention around racial justice and police reform, Fulton said the work is far from over.

During her speech, Fulton called on Peorians who consider themselves “activists” to “act," instead of sitting back and simply “liking” a post on social media, or attending one meeting about an issue.

“You gotta do something other than just watching it on the news and say, 'That's wrong what happened to Ahmaud Aubrey. That's wrong what happened to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. You gotta say more than that," she said. "Because guess what? It may hit your family. ... And then what? Then what? Don't do like I did. It took my son being shot down in order for me to stand up."

Protesters gather outside ALEC headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2012, to protest stand-your-ground laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.
Mladen Antonov
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AFP/Getty Images
Protesters gather outside ALEC headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2012, to protest stand-your-ground laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.

Fulton said Peorians can write letters, run for office, volunteer, donate. And, if you’re called for jury duty — go.

"Please don’t just think of an excuse to get out of it," she said. "We needed it. We needed it for Trayvon.”

She also called on Peorians to have compassion for one another.

“We have people in this country that will ride down the street and see an animal that’s been hurt, and will stop their car, and help the animal,” she said. “But if they see a human being hurting on the side of the road, they will not stop. … I believe that, because we came from a space of hatred. So many of us are filled with hatred.”

She continued, "The pain that I carry in my heart regarding my 17-year-old who was shot and killed, because this country is so full of hate ... We need to change our ways and our mindset. We gotta change our ways, and our mindset."

Before her speech, Fulton told WCBU more about Circle of Mothers.

“There was not an organization, a group that was around, when my son was shot and killed,” she said. “And so I created something that was missing. … It’s about mothers connecting, healing. I knew I wasn’t the only mother that had lost a child, but I felt alone.”

Acknowledging Peoria's recent record-breaking year of gun violence, Fulton told WCBU she hoped grieving parents and families would join Circle of Mothers, or a similar organization.

“It’s not about going through it alone, and going through it by yourself, but connecting with other strong people who can get you through this deep and hard time, and this tragedy that they’re going through,” she said.

Her son would have turned 27 years old on Feb. 5.

In Florida, Fulton said she and supporters celebrate his birthday instead of commemorating his Feb. 26 death. Annual peace walks are held on Feb. 5. This year will be no different.

Learn more on the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s website.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.