Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lesson Plans

Trayvon Martin Case Provokes Justice and Race Debate

July 26, 2013

Full Lesson


On the night of February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a Florida neighborhood while on his way home from a convenience store. The killing opened emotional debates about racial profiling and self-defense laws.

Watch Americans Rally in Protest of Zimmerman Verdict on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The man who killed Trayvon Martin was 28-year-old George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who decided to follow Martin as the teenager walked back from a trip to a convenience store. There was a scuffle that ended when Zimmerman shot Martin in chest. Zimmerman claimed protection under the Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, which gives people the liberty to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger.

For nearly three weeks the jurors listened to testimony about what happened the night Martin was killed, trying to make sense of the struggle, and who was the aggressor. Martin was unarmed, but the defense claimed that he used the concrete sidewalk as a “weapon” against Zimmerman.

With only one eyewitness, Zimmerman, and a lack of evidence, a jury made up of six women found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and he was acquitted of all charges on July 13, 2013.

Verdict sparks protests

On the night of the confrontation, Zimmerman told 911 dispatchers that a “real suspicious guy” looked like he was “up to no good.” The police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, but Zimmerman decided to act.

Following the verdict announcement, people took to the streets and social media to voice their reactions. Hundreds of protesters in Los Angeles closed down 10 Freeway chanting “Justice for Trayvon,” and thirteen people were arrested on the third night of protests. Police in Atlanta said more than 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside of the CNN Headquarters. In Washington, D.C., peaceful protests started around midnight Saturday and continued Sunday morning and in New York City, hundreds of protesters marched into Times Square.


President Obama released a statement saying: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

Meanwhile the Twitterverse was up in arms with people from all over the country expressing their views in tweets and hashtags. Celebrities also participated, with Solange Knowles tweeting a picture from a rally for Trayvon while her sister Beyonce held a moment of silence in honor of Martin during her Mrs. Carter World Tour concert in Nashville Saturday evening.


Zimmerman may still face other charges

While criminal charges against Zimmerman were dropped, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to pursue a federal investigation. On the Monday after the verdict, Holder told a convention of the nation’s largest black sorority that he shares concerns about “the tragic, unnecessary shooting” and the federal government is “determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion – and also with truth.”

More than 460,000 people have signed a online petition by the NAACP, urging the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman.

The Martin family also has the option to pursue a civil case against Zimmerman, though they have not said whether they are planning to do so.

— Compiled by Mallory Sofastaii for NewsHour Extra