They are joining the Trayvon Martin crusade by the hour now.
It feels like an echo from another era — when there was racial injustice in the headlines, when federal troops were dispatched to comb Southern swamps to look for blacks who had vanished.
And when lawyers for the NAACP slid into town with briefcases and addresses of safe houses.
It feels like the not-so-long-ago ’60s, back when getting federal authorities to move quickly was often difficult. But this is a different era, however tragically similar the outcome.
The Trayvon Martin story has multiple layers: a black victim, a Hispanic man who did the shooting in Sanford, Fla. In Washington, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Thomas E. Perez, is Hispanic. The attorney general of the United States, Eric H. Holder Jr., is a black man. The man who occupies the Oval Office, Barack Obama, is an African American.
And yet, even that arc of progress — while admired — hasn’t softened emotions and feelings.
“It reminds you of Emmett Till,” said Bernadette Pruitt, an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Tex., who has written about Southern racial history and can’t stop thinking of Trayvon Martin and his family. “This so-called post-racialism is a figment of our imagination. Race, unfortunately, is still the barometer by which everyone is measured.”
Investigating the killing of the 17-year-old Martin, who was black, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, is now a top priority for the FBI, senior law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
One focus of the FBI’s inquiry is whether Zimmerman muttered a racial slur seconds before shooting Martin on Feb. 26, as has been alleged. The FBI is trying to determine whether the audiotape of a 911 dispatch call between Sanford police and Zimmerman can be enhanced with sophisticated equipment that has been used in other cases. If it can, the tape will be transferred to the FBI laboratory at Quantico, one official said.
Enhancing the tape could be crucial to determining whether the shooting is considered a “hate crime” under federal hate-crime laws, according to law enforcement officials.
Top Justice officials were scheduled to meet Thursday in Florida with the Martin family and the family’s attorney. And Holder on Friday is scheduled to meet with black ministers at the White House, where the Martin case is expected to come up, according to a government official.
On Wednesday in Sanford, the doors of a black church swung open so those in pain could sit, or stand, and give vent to their hurt. Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president, was in town. He was there to deal with the death of an unarmed teenager on a darkening street. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense. The mourners showed up at Olive Street Baptist Church to pray for justice and talk about their run-ins with Southern law enforcement. Anger seemed to outweigh prayer.
One after another, they filed to the front of the red-carpeted sanctuary to tell their stories.
Mary Scott said her son was shot to death by police in 2010, a killing that she said was unjustified and remains largely uninvestigated. “I’ve got animosity in my heart,” she said.
Lula King, 75, said her grandson was brutally beaten by three correctional officers after he had a seizure while in custody: black eyes, cuts and a “knot on his head bigger than a hen egg.” The men who beat him, wrongfully she said, had never faced discipline.
They were hanging on her every word.
She continued: “But I’ll tell you, God is gonna take care of all of this,” she said to shouts of “Amen!” from the crowd. “Whatever men do wrong, it’s gonna come to the light.”
The stories kept coming, as if it were hoped that they would provide some kind of salve for those who knew and loved Trayvon. People were testifying, a ritual in the black church. The facts about each case were impossible to parse on the spot, and possibly lost forever. But the sentiment behind the stories was unmistakable: Bad things had been done to others with the same promise as Martin. Too many questions had gone unanswered.
Martin has been swooped up this quickly, linked with names from the annals of history. “We can name names all the way from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin,” said Hannibal Duncan, 32, who told about black friends who had been profiled repeatedly and, in one case, beaten by police. “At some point, we’ve got to find some kind of way to stop it.”
On this same day, Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. posted online a letter addressed to “Fellow Citizens” that tried to answer some of the public’s vexing questions.
Why did Zimmerman have a firearm in his role as neighborhood watchman? He was authorized to carry a concealed weapon, according to Bonaparte.