After the death of the black 17-year-old at the hands of a neighborhood watch leader, civil rights leaders warned that Sanford risked its reputation as an upscale Mayberry and could become a 21st century version of civil rights flashpoints like Selma, Ala.
It seems Mayberry won out — at least for now. Downtown is abuzz with the activity of 1st Street shops and restaurants, not the sounds of marching protesters.
Literature lovers peruse Maya Books & Music. Craft beers are poured at The Imperial, a bar that doubles as a furniture store. At Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, patrons feast on sauerbraten and listen to the house polka band.
But beneath the usual pace of life lurks the memory of what happened a year ago Tuesday in a nearby gated community.
Civil rights leaders said that if Martin had been white, the neighborhood watch leader, George Zimmerman, would have been arrested the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic.
In the weeks after the shooting, thousands of people marched through Sanford, demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. T-shirts and posters of Martin sold rapidly on Sanford streets. The police chief lost his job.
The protests stopped after Jacksonville prosecutor Angela Corey took over the investigation and filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman a month and a half after Martin’s shooting. Zimmerman, whose trial is set for June, has pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense.
At the height of the protests last March, national civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP’s Ben Jealous had vowed to turn Martin’s shooting into a movement addressing equal justice under the law, as well as “stand your ground” laws that allow people to use deadly force if their lives are in danger. While those issues have retreated somewhat in the national discussion, they haven’t in Sanford, where race relations and concerns about traditionally underrepresented communities have moved to the forefront.
“It’s on our minds all the time,” said City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black.
Since the arrest, Sanford leaders have taken steps they hope ease racial tensions in the city of 53,000 residents, more than a quarter of whom are African-American. Officials have held a series of community meetings in the predominantly black neighborhood of Goldsboro, established a community relations office, and appointed a human relations commission and a panel to review police-community relations. And they’ve studied how other communities, such as Rochester, N.Y., have overcome periods of tense race relations.
“Out of tragedy comes opportunity,” said Mayor Jeff Triplett, who is white. “There was a scab over the wound of race relations, and this event opened it up.”
Residents of Sanford’s historically black neighborhoods say that for the most part, they are encouraged by the dialogue that has emerged with city officials. Shantree Hall said she welcomes the scrutiny Martin’s shooting death has brought to Sanford.
“It’s not just local eyes that are looking,” Hall said. “It’s the international eyes that are looking too. Sometimes you can fall weak and can’t stand upon your own feet to fight a battle, but people look at that battle and fight it for you. And that’s what happened in Sanford.”
Natalie Jackson, a Sanford native who also is an attorney for Martin’s parents, said the city is slowly reaching a point of reconciliation.
“There’s something good that’s coming out of this, and that’s going to be the understanding,” she said. “I think Sanford will be a better community for it.”
But officials are aware that protests and racial tension could return during Zimmerman’s June trial or April self-defense hearing. It’s then that a judge will decide whether his defense argument is sufficient to allow for the case to be dismissed. Weighing on local leaders’ minds are the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of three police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
“History has shown it can happen if people feel justice isn’t served,” Bonaparte said.
“The community itself is standing fast, waiting to see what happens,” Seminole County NAACP President Turner Clayton said this month at a gathering to commemorate what would have been Martin’s 18th birthday. “Right now there is a lot of calm throughout the city. ... They’re just laidback, waiting to see what goes on. So we’ll see.”
And while the fervor over the Martin shooting may have calmed for now, Sanford residents point out other problems, such as a recent rash of shootings between rival gangs.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot that’s still going on with violence in our community, with violence against other people,” resident Marc Booker said. “There’s a lot of people trying to pull together and understand that there needs to be unity.”