Eight Years Later: Black Lives Matter and the Legacy of Trayvon Martin

As news of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, 2020, spread across the nation this past February, I was struck by a tragic feeling of déjà vu. What I was learning about the tragic events that took place in Brunswick, Georgia, were eerily similar to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, eight years earlier.

As a student of racial violence and lynching, both instances are striking to me in the ways they mimic the vigilante terrorism from the early 20th century. The elements of racial profiling, stalking, then extralegal murder were consistent with the practice of lynching during its heyday.

As unbelievable as Trayvon’s murder was in 2012, it’s difficult to fathom the continuation of the brazen and criminal assault against Ahmaud in 2020, much less the vicious executions of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Eight years later and these tragedies continue. The one difference, perhaps, is the new resonance that the Black Lives Matter moniker and movement have taken in the American consciousness. Since being coined by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors in 2013 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a rallying cry, an organizing principle, and, regrettably, a target of misplaced scorn. It was heard in the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson in 2015. It was why Colin Kaepernick knelt in 2016. It was also the prompt for the spiteful counternarratives of the “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” rhetoric that sought to undermine and overshadow the original message of Black activists.

Eight years later, however, and the message has penetrated the national consciousness in a new way. In the stillness of the pandemic, more Americans had time to contemplate with horror the deadly message Derek Chauvin telegraphed as he knelt, with his hands casually in his pockets, on George Floyd’s carotid artery for nearly nine minutes as Floyd lay dying and calling out for his deceased mother: that Black lives did not matter and, as a consequence, the murder of a Black person in broad daylight with little provocation was no big deal. The combined tragedies of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd—along with Trayvon Martin’s and so many others before and after him—angered thousands of Americans, setting off a record number of demonstrations in the US and around the globe.

Eight years later, in a way that we had not witnessed prior to now, “Black Lives Matter” began to be echoed not only from the streets but the C-suites of corporations around the country, and were followed by pledges of material and financial resources to address racial inequality in the US.

Over these eight years, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin have kept the flame of Trayvon’s legacy alive, illuminating a path from tragedy to activism. Through the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the family not only found a way to memorialize their son through their annual Remembrance Walks and Remembrance Galas, but to also offer healing to parents who have experienced similar losses through their Circle of Mothers and Circle of Fathers programs. Sybrina joined forces with the Mothers of the Movement, who have become advocates for gun control and police reform at the national level.  Together, Sybrina and Tracy have turned their pain into a campaign for healing and justice.

Eight years after Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, the March on Washington in 1963 hailed a new day in the nation’s history and the advent of a civil rights movement. Eight years after Trayvon’s murder, the nation has finally come to understand the pain that gave birth to the motto “Black Lives Matter,” and the promise of this social justice movement.