Princess Anne, Md. – A tribute rally Tuesday in memory of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin attracted 150 University of Maryland Eastern Shore students troubled by the Florida teen’s shooting death and its aftermath.

Many at the midday event — held when no classes were scheduled — wore hooded sweatshirts and cradled Skittles and iced tea in their hands — the same attire and snacks Martin was carrying when he was shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain in late February.

Martin’s death and subsequent reaction by Sanford, Florida authorities has fueled a simmering national debate over street justice and racial profiling, and raised questions about the role both might have played in the tragedy.
UMES students listened to student leaders and guest speakers, including local pastor Mark Thomas, who said “this is a time for us to come together.”

Rhett Burden, a UMES residence life director, challenged the audience to “spread the message of hope … of tolerance … and … of forgiveness.”

Unlike rallies held in Martin’s honor around the country, the UMES event was somber. Thomas said a prayer. Students held hands, heads bowed.

Valarie Matthews, the student government president who organized the rally with vice president Jeffrey Ekoma, lit a single maroon candle that momentarily fought off cold, swirling winds. Someone whispered that Martin’s appreciative spirit kept it lit for a few inspirational moments.
“I wanted to be out here, and be part of the cause,” said Jeremy Whichard, a sophomore from Upper Marlboro, Md. “That could have been me — it could have been anyone at this rally.”

Mignon Anderson, an English and modern languages professor at UMES, was a featured speaker who encouraged the students to be strong during a period when the country is questioning whether it has relapsed on civil rights.

“I would like to think he would have embraced good people of every complexion, of every race, in the cause of racial equality and justice,” Anderson said of Martin.

Roberta Ocran, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y. attended the rally to learn more details about Martin’s death, and what has so many people upset.

“Usually, when something bothers us, we just sit around and talk about it. Send e-mails, Tweets,” Ocran said. “We need to take action. I felt like (coming to the rally) was something I needed to do.”
Matthews said she was encouraged by the turnout for a hastily organized event just two days after spring break ended.

Anderson agreed. She told the crowd that some African-American students in one of her fall classes questioned whether “the struggle for racial justice in the United States is … needed or relevant.” The Martin case, she said, provides a stark reminder.

“We need you to continue the tradition of non-violent protest, using the law to outwit those who would deny us our rights,” Anderson told the audience that also included faculty and staff. “

“Pass this on,” she said, “so that there one day will be so small a group of racial haters … they will be ashamed to show their faces.”