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Black Lives Activists Move From Protests to Campaign Trail

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- On Feb. 26, 2012, almost exactly four years ago, Sybrina Fulton’s 17-year-old son was shot and killed after an altercation with a man named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.

The protests after the death of Fulton’s son, Trayvon Martin, helped spur a new civil rights movement that has demanded changes both in policing and how African-Americans are treated by the broader American society.

That movement is now becoming increasingly formalized and politicized, with its key figures attending White House meetings, making appearances on the presidential campaign trail and seeking to turn a group of discrete protests into the kind of major legislative and cultural changes that resulted from the activism of the 1960s.

Sybrina Fulton Explains Why She's Supporting Hillary Clinton 2:26

When President Obama invited civil rights leaders to a White House meeting last week, the usual suspects were there, representing long-established groups like the NAACP and the National Action Network. But also in attendance were black leaders from Campaign Zero, We the Protestors and the Color of Change, all relatively new groups that have helped organize protests in the wake of police shootings of civilians around the country. Deray Mckesson, a 30-year-old who is one of the leaders of We the Protesters, is now running for mayor of Baltimore.

And Fulton is on the campaign trail, making stops throughout South Carolina this week as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Many relatives of the African-Americans who been killed in racially-charged incidents over the last four years have publicly endorsed either Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Clinton, trying to ensure issues of racial and police brutality remain a part of the 2016 campaign dialogue.

“The reason I sit here is because I’m going to continue to fight for my son and all of the sons and daughters who are victims of senseless gun violence,” Fulton said at an event organized by the Clinton campaign at a black church in Greenville.

Image: Bernie Sanders, Erica Garner
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reaches out to hug Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed by New York City police. Evan Vucci / AP

“The media wanted us to believe it was about the hoodie,” Fulton said, referring to what her son was wearing on the night he died. “But we all know everybody wears those hoodies. It was not about the hoodie my son had on, it was the color of his skin.”

This emerging civil rights movement is still in its infancy. But it is already putting a different face on black activism in America. Traditionally, the key leaders in black civil rights movements have been male, heterosexual and often linked closely to the religious community, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Mckesson and Rashad Robinson, the leader of Color of Change, are both gay. Few of the new leaders run religious congregations. It is largely the mothers, not the fathers, of the young people who have died in these shootings who have emerged as the public figures.

Many of the goals of the new activists, such as stopping police shootings of civilians and expanding gun control, are shared by the older civil rights organizations. But there are also deep differences, both within in the movement and how it relates to the traditional civil rights groups.

For example, Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was choked to death by New York police officers in 2014, spent this week making stops with four other mothers, including Fulton, in support of Clinton.

But Erica Garner, one of Garner’s daughters, has backed Sanders, writing in a Washington Post op-ed, “I trusted establishment Democrats who claimed to represent me, only to later watch them ignore and explain away the injustice of my father’s death.”

Black Lives Matter activists have long feuded with Sharpton and more traditional leaders, who they feel swoop in and grab press attention without understanding underlying conditions in the aftermath of each individual shooting.

But overall, the activists share a similar goal: highlighting what they view as a culture of racism that they feel devalues black lives and leads to unjustified shootings.

On Tuesday night, Clinton hosted an event at a black church in Columbia that featured five black women whose sons and daughters had died in controversial incidents, including Fulton and Carr.

“What I am so grateful for is how they are turning grief into resolve,” Clinton said of the mothers. “They’ve been traveling America to ask for the kind of real change that we need.”

Clinton’s event was the latest example of how the Democratic Party establishment is trying to bring these new activists into the party’s fold.

“Thanks to technology and social media, today’s leaders are building a new, inclusive movement that’s mobilizing people of all backgrounds to stand up for change,” Obama said after his meeting with the civil rights groups last week.

He added, “so I want to give a special shout-out to young people here today and tell them we want them to continue doing what they’re doing.”

Tuesday’s session in Columbia was striking, in that it was a Hillary Clinton for President event in which Clinton spoke very little and many of the other speakers rarely addressed her candidacy. Instead, the women spoke in deep, personal terms about dealing with the grief of losing their sons and daughters.

“I never thought I would be an activist,” Carr said. “I never thought I would be in front of you. I had to turn my sorrow into a strategy.”

“I still don’t really know what happened with my daughter,” said Geneva Reed-Veal, whose daughter Sandra Bland committed suicide after a controversial arrest in Texas last year.

The activists are wary of being co-opted by the political process. After meeting with the president last week, Brittany Packnett, wrote an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper emphasizing that she and others had bluntly listed their goals to Obama, not just content to have a meeting with him.

The mothers campaigning for Clinton had a similar message. The former secretary of state had approached them. They were backing her not to gain political power, but because she had embraced their goals.

“We are not being exploited,” said Reed-Veal. “We are very strong women, and I don’t think any of us could be exploited if they tried.”

“Hillary endorsed our children,” she added, “That’s why we’re endorsing her.”