Attorney General Eric Holder looked out over a sea of women in red on Monday and invoked his wife, a member of the influential African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta. Holder was addressing the sorority's national convention in its centennial year.
Founded at Howard University, Delta Sigma Theta is the largest single organization of African-American women in the United States. The members of Delta Sigma Theta represent a who's who of African-American politicians, educators and activists, and they continue the sorority's traditional focus on civil rights.
Holder is the first administration official to speak publicly since the verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was announced late Saturday night. As the nation's chief law enforcement official, he refrained from specifying any legal actions his department is considering. But he did speak to a widely felt emotion in the room of prominent black women: pain.
"As parents, as engaged citizens, and as leaders who stand vigilant against violence in communities across the country, the Deltas are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case. The Justice Department shares your concern — I share your concern — and, as we first acknowledged last spring, we have opened an investigation into the matter."
On Saturday night, as the sorority held a gala dinner, news of the verdict spread rapidly.
The DJ at one event turned down the music to announce it. After performer India.Arie heard the news, she changed her set list to honor Martin and his family.
Many of the sorority members interviewed described an almost physical feeling of loss and frustration over the verdict. Stephanie Nobles explained her reaction:
"What it said to me was that, someone was killed, and it didn't matter. You can pursue someone, confront them and then when things don't go the way you think they should, you can just kill them, and feel justified by that."
Delta Sigma Theta President Cynthia Butler-McIntyre said the sorority is "disheartened" by the verdict. While the group respects the legal system, she said, the system "failed to provide justice for Trayvon Martin and other African-American males." She called on the group's mothers, sisters, and wives to mobilize peacefully, to repeal laws she said victimize America's black communities.
Renee James, who was also at the Delta conference, is biracial. She said she raised both her sons as black:
"I have 22- and 19-year-olds. ... And one of them is a football player, so he looks ... intimidating. So I tell him to be careful at all times. Always be aware of your surroundings; you never know who's watching you. And don't try to confront anybody."
James said the verdict took her by surprise. She expected the six-person jury — five of them mothers — to identify with the horror of an attack on an unarmed teenager, even if they were white. If it was not murder, she thought the jury would at least consider manslaughter. She'd like to see the federal government bring charges against Zimmerman.
"I would love to see America just really change its view. Not all black boys are going to kill you. They're not out to get you. Sometimes they're just going to get a soda and some Skittles," said James.
Through Delta Sigma Theta, James already helps out with voter registration in her home state of Texas. Now, she plans to step up her political activism and work against the stand your ground law that some say made it easier for Zimmerman to pursue Martin with impunity.
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As we said, Attorney General Holder spoke today at the annual convention of Delta Sigma Theta. That's a century-old black sorority with a service mission. Members include a who's who of African-American politicians, educators and activists. Among many issues, the group has long focused on improving civil rights. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case feels personal for many of the women at the gathering.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: When the news came Saturday night, the DJ at one sorority event turned down the music to announce it. Janet Booker(ph) says her group was just about to take a photo but her face, her whole body, just fell.
JANET BOOKER: I just almost lost it, really, because I've been really following it really close. I'm being a mother of two black boys, ages one and four.
LUDDEN: Booker has come to this convention from Dallas, along with Stephanie Nobles(ph), the godmother of her sons.
STEPHANIE NOBLES: What it said to me was that someone was killed and it didn't matter. You can just go - I mean, you can pursue someone, have a confrontation with them and then when things don't go the way that you think they should, then you can just kill them and feel justified by that.
LUDDEN: The women say they know there were many facets of the case. Booker believes the prosecution made some errors and, of course, they say, the country has come a long way. Witness a black president and black attorney general. And yet, they say, the whole violent episode grew out of one thing that has not changed. As they see it, George Zimmerman racially profiled a young black man and the judicial system has said that's OK.
NOBLES: My brother sent me a text and he referenced the 1960s and he said that, you know, this takes him back to the 1960s, and here we are in 2013.
BOOKER: And I had a Facebook friend that put on Facebook: Remember to set your clocks back 200 years.
LUDDEN: Renee James(ph) is also here from Dallas.
RENEE JAMES: The night it came through, I was in my room alone, so I cried the whole night, till 3 and 4 in the morning.
LUDDEN: James is biracial, but says her two sons have been raised as black.
JAMES: I have 22- and 19-year-olds and one of them is a football player, so he looks intimidating. So, you know, I tell him be careful at all times. Always be aware of your surroundings; never know who's watching you and don't try to confront anybody.
LUDDEN: While others here sigh that they were not surprised by the verdict. Renee James was. She expected the mothers on the jury, even if they were white, to identify with the horror of an attack on an unarmed teenager. If it was not murder, she thought they'd at least see manslaughter. And now?
JAMES: I would love to see America just really change its view. Not all black boys are going to kill you. They're not out to get you. Sometimes they're just going to get a soda and some Skittles.
LUDDEN: Through Delta Sigma Theta, James already helps out with voter registration in her home state of Texas. Now, she plans to step up her political activism and work against the Stand Your Ground law that some say made it easier for Zimmerman to pursue Martin with impunity.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...
LUDDEN: As the sorority members waited to hear from Attorney General Eric Holder, their president, Cynthia Butler McIntyre, issued a statement. She said the sorority is disheartened by the verdict. While the group respects the legal system, she said, the system failed to provide justice for Trayvon Martin and other African-American males. She called on the groups' mothers, sisters and wives to mobilize peacefully to repeal laws she says victimize America's black communities. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.