Sybrina Fulton is not a household name. But her son, Trayvon Martin, certainly is.
Fulton, the mother of the teen who was fatally shot in 2012, took part in Penn's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Commemoration on Jan. 22 for an evening of awards, musical performances and a panel discussion.
The crowd rose to their feet when Fulton was introduced at Irvine Auditorium. Many Penn community members and West Philadelphia residents were eager to hear from the woman whose son’s death has gained worldwide attention over the past several years.
“It’s still very painful for me. But I know there’s a bigger purpose,” Fulton said. “I feel like I have to continue to speak because of the bigger picture. Originally when we first started out, yes of course, it was about Trayvon. It was about my son, just like it would be about your son.”
Fulton explained how she felt the justice system is not fair or impartial, as it should be. She added that she still remains amazed that what she has gone through could happen to a U.S. citizen like herself.
All three panelists described their frustration with the U.S. government, which they repeatedly said they believe too often serves only the interests of “billionaires and corporations.” They also expressed disappointment with President Obama who they expected to do a lot more to ease racial tensions in the country.
“We have one one of the largest people’s movement happening in this country in probably the last half century, and he barely even mentioned it in his State of the Union address,” civil rights activist Bakari Kitwana said.
Kitwana advertised the event as "LOVE IN A TIME OF HORROR: SPIRITUAL HEALING AND RESISTANCE IN THE AFTERMATH OF STATE SANCTIONED MURDER" on a poster he shared on social media. The chaplain said in an email that the poster was not created by the University and that the title Kitwana used was not the official title of the event. However, Kitwana used the title when introducing the event on stage.
When later asked by the Daily Pennsylvanian what specifically she wanted to change about the justice system in the United States, Fulton provided the following response.
"I certainly believe that people have to open their eyes to what’s going on and stop pretending that it's not happening,” she said. “When we say racial profiling and we say discrimination and we say things like that, people sort of cringe in their seats, that they know it's going on. So I would just hope that people participate more in what they see and what they know about it."
Fulton also told the DP that her experience has changed the way she views other tragedies when she hears about them.
"It's more painful to me because I went through that pain,” she said. “So when I watch what a mother has to go through, my heart aches for that mother to know what she is going to have to get through and how she's going to have to sustain herself and get up in the morning and do normal activities that she has been doing all her life. It connects me into compassion with other mothers."
The event was sponsored by, among others, the Office of the President and the Office of the Chaplain. Alongside Kitwana and hip-hop artist and activist Jasiri X, Fulton discussed the the aftermath of her son's death.
"I want to say thank you publicly to Penn State University" — in reference to the University of Pennsylvania — "because it was the universities like Penn State and others that started and that supported and helped us to keep the Trayvon Martin movement going," Fulton said.
The evening included performances by African Rhythms, the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir, Shabbatones and Ph. D. student Melanie Hill, a concert violinist. The Shabbatones, fresh off their performance at the White House last month, expressed how the interfaith event was one they look forward to taking part in each year.
“When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, he said that he was praying with his feet,” Wharton Sophomore and Shabbatones member Aaron Zell explained. “I like to think that by performing here, we are also praying in a sense for peace.”
Awards were also presented to individuals who embodied King’s spirit through service to the community. The recipients of this year’s community awards were Tyrone Smith, a longtime activist for black gay men in Philadelphia, and Reuben Jones, the founder of Frontline Dads, an organization that supports at-risk youth, single dads and ex-offenders.
The Rodin Education Award was presented to Wharton professor Keith Weigelt for his free financial literacy courses he holds as part of his Building Bridges to Wealth program. College senior Rawlin Rosario was honored for his commitment to mentoring North Philadelphia students. Tiffany Dominique, the community liaison at Penn’s Center for AIDS Research was honored for both her work at Penn and her volunteer work within her own community.
“If Martin Luther King were here today, he would say that there’s still work to do,” Dominique said. “What he wanted to do what was to serve. I think all the recipients here are being honored because they served. And anybody can do that.”
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