ORLANDO, Fla. — Civil rights leaders at the NAACP national convention Wednesday — Martin Luther King III and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — called the acquittal in 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s slaying a setback for race relations — and the audience agreed.
In separate speeches to the gathering of several thousand, and in interviews, the trio called for an end to racial profiling and to Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.
Some in attendance murmured, “That’s right” or “Amen.”
In the evening, hundreds of residents marched through downtown to demand justice for Martin, who was unarmed when he was shot.
George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting. His attorneys said the neighborhood watch volunteer fired in self-defense after Martin assaulted him.
King told the conference crowd that the Martin killing “should be a true wake-up call for America — for a lot of folks who thought they were free, and thought that everything is great.”
“Our children are targeted. Our community is targeted,” King said, noting that a month before the 50th anniversary of his father’s famous “I have a dream” speech, “the dream of my father has not been fulfilled.”
Diane Charles, 65, a real estate consultant from Little Rock, Ark., called out “I remember” in response to a speech by Sharpton. She remembers Jim Crow laws, remembers watching civil rights protests on TV and remembers how she had to the walk to back of the bus.
“It is about race,” she said of the Zimmerman case. “We are living in a time of denial.”
Her husband, Dale Charles, 68, president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said he believed Zimmerman, who identifies as Latino, racially profiled Martin.
“What we’re trying to say to America is: All is not well,” Dale Charles said.
Sharpton, who has called for rallies Saturday at federal buildings in hundreds of cities across the country, described “stand your ground” laws as “the worst violation of civil rights, of state law, in this country.”
“The illusion with the election of Barack Obama was that we had become ‘post-racial,’” Sharpton said at the convention. “Those who bear the burden of blackness know that’s not the case.”
Jackson said the Zimmerman case “exposed how ludicrous” Florida’s “stand your ground” law is.
Their comments come one day after U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. also made an impassioned speech at the convention in which he exhorted the nation to take a hard look at states’ various “stand your ground” laws.
In response to Holder’s comments, the National Rifle Assn. made it clear Wednesday that the organization supported such laws.
“The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept; it’s a fundamental human right,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.”
Florida’s “stand your ground” law permits someone to “stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force” if the person fears death or great bodily harm. The law also removes the duty to retreat in the face of a perceived threat.
The “stand your ground” concept was included in the Zimmerman jury instructions under the self-defense rubric in which justifiable use of force was to be considered.
The division of opinion over the case came into focus during an exchange at an evening event in Orlando, where about 750 people gathered at a park to march to the courthouse.
The mostly black crowd included many youths and families, some toting handmade signs that said “Endangered species: young black men and boys” and “I am Trayvon.”
“A lot of families want to bring young kids to show them to march peacefully,” said Sharon Reed, 50, an Orlando nurse who brought her 16-year-old son. “It’s also history, like Martin Luther King, when they marched. A lot of young people want to be a part of it.”
Casey Kole Sr., a Zimmerman supporter who protested outside the courthouse where the trial was held, also attended the march, holding a sign reading “Not guilty.” Kole, who is white, brought a few extra signs in case he met like-minded protesters, he said.
Most of those around him were black and not pleased.
“This is a rally for Trayvon, not Zimmerman,” one woman said.
“It’s important to note that Zimmerman was found innocent,” Kole responded. “It’s time we recognize the laws and abide by them.”
He condemned Sharpton as an outsider and “race-baiter” out to divide a peaceful community.
“You’re inciting a riot,” another man said, snapping Kole’s picture and vowing to post it online.
Gwyn Gittens, a high school teacher from Ft. Myers, Fla., who attended the NAACP convention, said she’d heard friends complain that the Zimmerman trial was not about race.
But she thinks of her adult son, who she said was profiled while shopping at a mall and held by police, who mistakenly accused him of stealing $10. “You can go to the galleria and buy what you want, but do you have the freedom to wear it where you want and get the same respect?” Gittens said.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Orlando and Pearce from Los Angeles.