The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized as one of the most prominent instruments of change in American history.
To honor him, the Penn State 2016 MLK Jr. Commemoration Committee hosted an evening celebration at Schwab Auditorium on Monday with another — unexpected — advocate of social change.
Unlike King, Sybrina Fulton did not choose the life of a civil rights activist.
“I was an average mom with an average lifestyle,” she said. “And then something happened to interrupt my average life. Something happened to me that caused tragedy in my life.”
Fulton’s son, Trayvon Martin, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in February 2012.
Martin, 17, was “followed, chased, pursued and murdered” by the 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, Fulton said.
Zimmerman, a mixed-race Hispanic man, had a loaded gun. Martin, a black teen, was unarmed.
Martin’s death — and Zimmerman’s delayed charge of murder in 2012 and subsequent acquittal in 2013 — sparked national outrage and ultimately ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I did not want to be the spokesperson,” Fulton said. “I did not want to speak out against senseless gun violence. But my son is not here to speak for himself and so it’s necessary for his parents to speak for him. I am simply doing my part as a mother.”
And just as King led the charge for civil rights in the 1960s, Fulton was thrust into the renewed fight for civil rights in the 2010s.
Fulton said she respected King for serving “a generation who could not help themselves.” He wanted to make a difference and bring about positive change, she said.
But Fulton was not there just to dwell on King’s journey as a civil rights activist; she was there to tell her own.
And where King was a practiced and masterful orator who became a civil rights activist early in his career, Fulton made it clear that this was not something she trained for; “not a job (she) would’ve applied for.”
“This is not a lecture, this is a conversation. This is my life,” she said. “This is my tragedy. This is not a case. This is not a story. This is about my life.”
Fulton’s life was completely changed the day she received a phone call from Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, telling her that her son had been killed.
“The worst day of my life was the day I had to sit in my church and attend the funeral service for my 17-year-old son, up front with a nice white suit on ... and a smirk on his face like he was telling me he was going to be all right.”
Four years later, Fulton said she still hurts.
“At first I did not want to be the spokesperson for my son: I just wanted to stay home and cry,” she said.
Instead of letting the pain consume her, Fulton established the Trayvon Martin Foundation in March 2012 in an effort “to advocate that crime victims and their families are not ignored in the discussions about violent crime to increase public awareness of all forms of racial, ethnic and gender profiling,” according to the foundation’s website.
Fulton said the foundation reaches out to the families of victims of “senseless gun violence,” sponsors a mentoring program and aims to bridge the gap between young people and law enforcement.
The biggest component of change, Fulton said, is respect.
“You can’t love everybody. Just like you can’t forgive everybody,” she said. “But if I respect you, I have done due diligence to you as a human being. That’s what’s important. And nothing else matters.”
Fulton said one of King’s strengths was “speaking for people who could not speak for themselves.”
King was proactive; many see civil and human injustices but are slow to act until they affect them personally, Fulton said. She encouraged proactivity, suggesting active open-mindedness and self-education.
“I was forced to get involved,” she said. “Don’t wait until it happens to you. Don’t wait until your son is a hashtag.”