Amid impassioned chants of "We are Trayvon Martin," black leaders Monday called on thousands of supporters gathered at the NAACP's national convention in Orlando to use the teen's death as a rallying point for change.
Though still decrying what many viewed as an unfair and baffling verdict, the group moved its focus to larger goals: enacting laws that ban racial profiling, restoring the federal Voting Rights Acts, halting gun violence and changing the way society views young black men in general.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, in a sermon-like address, told a vocal convention crowd, "These are times of great possibility, but also times of great peril" that demand courage and action.
"We see it in the verdict handed down in Sanford," Jealous said. "We feel it every time we see one of our young sons … growing bigger and stronger by the day, walk out the front door and see him pull up his hoodie."
He called upon the group's members not only to work to restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, struck down late last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, but to register more voters, continuing a surge of new black voters that began in 2008.
In remarks to reporters after his speech, Jealous, a father of two, said the George Zimmerman acquittal brought him to tears.
"When I heard that ... the first thing I did was walk over to my son's crib and lift him up, and I listened to him breathe," Jealous recalled.
"And then I began to cry," he said. "No one can explain to me how, if this young boy [Trayvon Martin] was white, somebody wouldn't be in prison right now."
Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, a surprise speaker at the first major session of the five-day convention, said he spoke with Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, the morning after the Zimmerman verdict came in.
"Sybrina said she cried, she prayed, she cried some more and then she got up and went to church that [Sunday] morning," Crump said. "And when she came home from church, she called me up and said, 'Mr. Crump, I will not let this verdict define Trayvon. Our community will define Trayvon Martin's legacy … and we've now got to roll up our sleeves. We've got a long way to go so this won't happen to anybody else's child."
Crump praised Fulton and Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, for their dignity and courage in dealing with a "tragedy laid at their doorstep." But he also urged the crowd to "please refuse to remain silent because Sybrina and Tracy cannot do this by themselves."
Several of the speakers, including Jealous, called upon attendees to join the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 24.
While voting rights may not be the most pressing issue for NAACP members, Jealous acknowledged, "In a democracy, your right to vote is the right upon which your ability to defend all your other rights is leveraged."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., echoed that sentiment, describing the Supreme Court's recent decision as "gutting" the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. "And now it's left up to a dysfunctional Congress to fix the law … and right here at this convention you recognize there's a lost confidence in Washington to get those things done," Nelson added.
He pointed to last year's presidential election in Florida as evidence of a continued effort to suppress voting rights and worried what may come in the years ahead.
"Since the Supreme Court's decision, at least two states have started pushing more-restrictive laws," Nelson warned.
The issue is expected to be a further point of discussion today when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addresses the convention.
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