Just an hour after the special prosecutor announced second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, dozens of black Sanford residents gathered at the Allen Chapel AME church to give thanks.
The church, and its pastor, Rev. Valerie Houston, have been thrust into the center of what has become a local movement surrounding Martin’s death. And in a fiery message, Houston said it was God, and that movement, that brought the beginnings of justice to bear for Martin’s family, some 45 days after his death.
“The tears fell from my eyes today,” Houston told the congregation, “And I want to thank God. And I want to thank [state attorney] Angela Corey and her team.”
She was not the only one.
Sharon Burke, who lives in a nearby town, and who came to the church with her daughter, a liturgical dancer whose troupe was invited to participate in the service, said she cried “tears of joy” when she heard the announcement of charges, and then an arrest.
“We know it’s a long road, and this is just the first step,” Burke said. “But I thank God for this step.”
The sense that faith, and the activism of people all over the country, had brought unusual justice for a young black male killed in Sanford permeated the service at this church on the main road of Goldsboro, the historic black neighborhood in this small Florida town.
“It’s in God’s hands,” was all Roosevelt Jackson, a senior Goldsboro resident, said as he left the church.
“I feel like it’s a semi-relief,” said 26 year old Traymon Williams, his first name separated from Trayvon’s by a single letter. “Because we…the masses, we asked for an arrest [of Zimmerman]. But there’s a total difference between an arrest and a conviction. We need a conviction.”
Williams, who attends Allen Chapel and grew up in Sanford, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Martin’s picture, and the slogan “it’s not a black or white thing, it’s a wrong or right thing” on the front. On the back: the words President Obama spoke about the Miami teen who lost his life on February 26th: “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon.”
And while he said he was “ecstatic” about the charges against Zimmerman, and had been hopeful once Corey took the case, he remained cynical about all that it took for the case to get to court.”
“I think Trayvon, unfortunately, was fortunate in a way, to be 17,” Williams said. “I think maybe if he had been 18, or 27, he wouldn’t have gotten a second look. It would have been swept under the rug,” as he felt most cases of dead black men were in Sanford.
“I had the good fortune to go away to college and come back,” Williams said. “And it’s the same old Sanford — the same old police department, same results.”
Paris Baker, a 28-year-old actor who has lived in Sanford since last summer, displayed the same dual reaction of many black residents: grateful to the prosecutor, disturbed by the amount of public pressure it took to bring the justice system to bear.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Baker said, calling the charges against Zimmerman the “bare minimum” required for Martin’s family.
Still, he said, Martin’s death may have already had a larger meaning.
“There are a lot of issues that Trayvon’s killing has exposed in this country,” said Baker — like racial profiling and the deficits in police infrastructure that make things like neighborhood watches necessary in the first place. “I for one am committed to addressing these issues even when George Zimmerman is no longer the talk of the town.
Rev. Houston agreed, saying Trayvon’s death has sparked a movement for social change, and for a change in the policing of the black community, that will not go away.
“Changes will take place — changes have taken place, and we have to continue to march on until victory is won,” she said.
Turner Clayton, president of the local NAACP, joined in the near universal praise heaped by black Sanford residents on Angela Corey.
“We think the special prosecutor made a very diligent decision,” Clayton said, saying the community was not “celebrating” the decision, but rather was hopeful about “justice prevailing in this case.”
Commissioner Velma Williams, who represents the district encompassing much of Sanford’s predominantly black neighborhoods, agreed.
“We don’t tend to celebrate people’s downfall,” Williams said of Mr. Zimmerman, who could face life imprisonment if convicted of second degree murder. “We’re here for justice. We’re here to give thanks to the almighty, who we feel has made it possible for someone at a higher level than the local level, who really believes in justice,” to advance the case.
Williams said of Zimmerman being charged, “the wheels of justice began to turn today, though we have a long way to go. And especially, our hearts go out to the Martin family.”
“We have to believe in the system,” said Burke, as people began to clear out of the church. “We have to believe that justice will be done. But let it be done.”
And Rev. Houston said that while the community waits, she is just “relieved,” for Trayvon’s parents, and for the 17-year-old who has become so well known in death.
“I feel that he can get a little rest now,” Houston said, “That his soul can get a little rest.”
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport