Is Trayvon Martin’s Name Being Exploited By Civil Rights Leaders?

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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Rev. Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, and Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Trayvon Martin family, join together in a protest march just prior to a town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida. (Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images)

Rev. Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, and Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Trayvon Martin family, join together in a protest march just prior to a town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida. (Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — It’s been less than two months since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin lost his life after being shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, but the incident seems to have unified much of the nation against racial injustice long-term.

To quote Rev. Jesse Jackson, the nation has begun “to turn a moment into a movement.”

The nature of the situation, as well as the extensive coverage it has received nationally, did not abate after Zimmerman was arrested and indicted on a second-degree murder charge, all of which took place last week.

But Trayvon’s death has also served to galvanize civil rights activists in their ongoing crusade to truly evolve America into a post-racial society.

At a march held late last month in Sanford, organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the crowd.

“We live in the middle of an American paradox,” he said. “We can put a black man in the White House but we cannot walk a black child through a gated neighborhood. We are not selling out, bowing out or backing down until there is justice for Trayvon.”

“This is not about a hoodie, it’s about racial profiling,” Jackson added. “We will use our marching feet, civil disobedience and every weapon in our non-violent arsenal until justice is served.”

Have black leaders gone too far, though, in using Trayvon’s murder as a rallying point?

Some feel – and have publicly stated – that Trayvon’s name is being exploited for the sake of furthering a long-held goal.

Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, also condemned the response of many black leaders to the Trayvon Martin case as “shameful.”

On his radio show, Land additionally accused Obama of exploiting Martin’s death and said Jackson and Sharpton, whom he called “racial ambulance chasers,” were guilty of the same.

Land later apologized for any hurt caused by his explosive remarks.

“I am writing to express my deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding my comments about the Trayvon Martin case have generated,” Land wrote in letter to Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright. “It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life.”

Additionally, others — including Seminole County NAACP chapter president Turner Clayton — felt the actions of protesters to be too extreme for the situation.

“We hope that the citizens of Sanford will govern themselves accordingly. We are not calling for any sanctions, against any business or anyone else,” Seminole County NAACP chapter president Turner Clayton was quoted as saying in response to Sharpton’s call to action. “And, of course, what Rev. Sharpton does, that’s strictly the [National] Action Network. We can’t condone that part of the conversation, if that’s what he said.”

Some, however, say the nature of the crime – a child gunned down for the “crime” of walking while black – is worthy inspiration for the media frenzy and rampant protests that followed, regardless of the involvement of a few key civil rights leaders.

Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for Policy and Advocacy, tells CBSDC he does not feel the Trayvon Martin name is being exploited.

“I have not seen anyone exploiting the situation. Those in the civil rights community would be outraged if they had determined anyone to be utilizing the situation as an opportunity,” he said. “What I have seen … is a mutually shared outrage – not only did we have something as tragic and horrific as a 17-year-old kid being shot to death, but the police department responded as if he was not truly a … human being.”

In relation to Clayton’s comments, Shelton referenced the NAACP’s response protocol.

“I can only guess, without hearing the context, that what he was saying … was that we hadn’t gotten to the point where there was a need for civil disobedience,” he said. “[It's] another approach to raising the mantle on the issue, and we hadn’t gotten past the point of holding marches.”

But of all the factors feeding into the fervent cry for justice, there is one that has not received as much attention in the ongoing discourse – fear.

“Some people are just scared, quite frankly. The law is being implemented in such a way in Florida that I thought we were long past in the United States,” Shelton noted. “There was a time in our country when we knew the law would not be enforced in a fair and judicious way. We knew there were racial disparities, and we had less protection during those times. What we saw playing out in Florida was a stark reminder of those days gone by.”

Shelton, himself a father of a 17-year-old African-American boy, understands that fear all too well.

“I worry about the kids. I worry about my son by himself. I worry about someone acting [as] law enforcement.”

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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