PEORIA – Some 900 people listened as the mother of Trayvon Martin implored them to use Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a call to action to further social justice initiatives.
Sybrina Fulton, whose 17-year-old son died in 2012 after being shot in Florida, told those at the 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration luncheon at the Peoria Civic Center that the holiday isn't just a time to stay home.
"It took my son being shot down for me to stand up," she said. "I’m not afraid to say that. I was living my life, I was enjoying my life. It wasn’t until my son was shot down that I stood up and spoke."
It shouldn't come to that, she told the audience. They should "stand up" and help others.
"A day like this means service to me. That is what I would do," she said. "It means that I should be doing something of service because that is what Dr. King would be doing."
Photos from last year: About 100 vehicles parade through Peoria for Martin Luther King Day
In February 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who at the time was a neighborhood watch captain. The teen had been walking to his father’s fiancée's house in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense. He was later charged with second-degree murder and acquitted by a jury a year later. Martin's death sparked protests and rallies across the nation.
Subsequently, Fulton became an activist and an author, with a focus on reducing violence toward children and building safer communities. In 2020, Fulton lost a close race for a seat on the Miami-Dade (Fla.) Board of County Commissioners.
Much of her 30-minute talk was about her being "average." Fulton used that term often to convey her belief that tragedies like what happened to her son aren't contained to one group of people.
"I was average. I would come home, turn on the news and yell at my kids while I made dinner. I would tell them to clean up their rooms, do your homework, get a haircut," she said to the laughter of the crowd. "They wouldn't do it until I said it. It was a regular routine.
"Nothing that could have prepared me for what I was about to face," she said, turning the talk more serious. And she addressed the issue of the "hoodie" that her son was wearing which Zimmerman said he thought was suspicious.
"Why did have a hoodie on?" she asked, referring to her son. "It's here in Florida. Why? Because he was 17. Because he was a teenager."
It wasn't the clothing but the color of his skin, she said, that led to his death, and on MLK Day, she said, that has to stop.
"I can’t take off the color of my skin. I can’t remove that color. This is who I am. We all need to learn to get along with who people are, regardless of the color of their skin," she said. "I’m not telling you to love the person sitting next to you, but at least get along with them and respect them."
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the annual march this year, but emcee Gary Moore said the march would happen in 2023. The annual luncheon was put on by Public Employees for Community Concerns, the city-workers group.
Previous speakers include poet Maya Angelou, actor/singer Harry Belafonte, television personality Tamron Hall, the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Travyon Martin's mother speaks at 30th annual MLK Luncheon in Peoria