Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton told a packed Baptist cathedral here Wednesday night that he plans to make Florida “ground zero” in the fight to repeal “stand your ground” laws around the nation between now and the 2014 elections.
“We intend to make the election in Florida and nationally about stand your ground laws,” said Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, in a fiery sermon at the New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral.
The National Action Network staged protests in 100 cities Saturday, one week after George Zimmerman, 29, was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in the central Florida town of Sanford in February 2012.
Stand your ground laws say a person has no obligation to retreat from the threat of violence if he or she can safely do so, but instead can respond with violence. The judge in the Zimmerman case cited the 2005 Florida law when she instructed the jury in that trial. A juror later said the judge’s instruction left the jury no choice but to find Zimmerman not-guilty and said she thought Florida lawmakers should change the law.
“Trayvon Martin will be a symbol for changing laws,” Sharpton said. “We see it as a civil rights violation. It is a violation of people’s civil rights to take life and say, ‘I thought I was endangered,’ and the other person is dead. …Trayvon Martin had a civil right to go home.”
The crowd greeted that thought and many others during the sermon with cheers and applause.
“This is something the voters can do something about by electing officials who will change the legislation,” Sharpton said. “That’s what the civil rights movement of the 1960s was about, changing legislation.”
“We are going to register voters in Florida by numbers they will be stunned by,” he said referring to defenders of stand your ground laws. “We are going to work county by county in Florida to register voters. We are going to have a stand off in Florida over the stand your ground law next year. You can not allow that to stay on the books. “
Sharpton said his organization would try to form a coalition of whites, blacks and Latinos in Florida to challenge candidates who support stand your ground.
“We have to do this together,” he said. “We have to go in the trenches and go to work.”
He said the latest figures show that 1.3 million blacks in Florida are not registered to vote. Many of those are former prison inmates who have been denied the right to vote despite having completed their sentences, parole and probation. Sharpton said his organization would address that issue.
He said on Aug. 24 his organization will sponsor a march on Washington in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech.
But Sharpton said the coming march will also focus on stand your ground laws and on what he said are attempts to infringe on voting rights, especially of blacks.
“Stand your ground and voting rights will be the theme of the national march,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said “right wingers” accuse black leaders of never addressing the issue of black on black crime, but he denied that is true.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said, adding that a meeting he convened Wednesday afternoon with local black pastor had dealt extensively with that issue.
But he said “exterior threats” had also been discussed, especially stand your ground laws. He also bemoaned racial profiling in the U.S. which he called “humiliating, frightening.”
“We are still seeing people judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character,” he said. “There must be laws against profiling. Federal racial profiling laws must be implemented and executed.