This hoodie’s life span should have been unremarkable, like millions of others worn by young men — ballgames, concerts, parties then, maybe, an old-clothes donation box. Instead, it set on a meandering path one night in 2012, as it seeped blood from the body of a kid named Trayvon Martin, who’d had a hankering for some Skittles and a can of watermelon fruit juice. In the decade since, on its way to becoming the first iconic artifact of the current surge of civil rights activism, the hoodie has changed hands, quietly traversed thousands of miles, been packed and unpacked, framed and unframed.
In a series of interviews, The Washington Post has reconstructed the hoodie’s emotion-wracked, years-long path, including stops along the way and episodes that have not been previously reported.
Martin was shot to death on Feb. 26, 2012 while walking through a community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, a north-central Florida city where he’d gone from Miami for a few days to visit his father. He’d gone to a convenience store and was returning to a townhouse where he’d been that night with his father, Tracy Martin, and his father’s fiancee.
He was spotted by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman, who called 911.
“This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something,” Zimmerman said.
He also made note of what Trayvon Martin was wearing: a hoodie.
Zimmerman had a gun. A Kel-Tec PF9 9mm handgun. He gave chase. Later, Zimmerman would say there’d been a struggle. There was a single gunshot. Martin was dead.
An anguished conversation about race ensued. Here was another example, among far too many, of a young Black man gunned down. The initial police and media reports identified Zimmerman only as White. Later, it came out that he is also Hispanic — his mother was from Peru.
From the beginning, the hoodie resonated as a powerful symbol, a lever for articulating a larger message: That young Black men are perpetual targets. A piece of clothing like a hoodie, partially obscuring the wearer’s face, could be falsely interpreted as sinister by people predisposed to be suspicious of Blacks. The release of surveillance video showing Martin in his hoodie at the convenience stores was played and replayed on television in the months before his trial, leading to accusations from some activists that it was unfairly presenting the banal act of buying snacks as malevolent or threatening.
The night he was killed, Martin had planned to watch the NBA All-Star Game, which was being played in Orlando, just 25 miles from where he was slain. In Miami, the next month, two of the players in that game — superstars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — posted photos of themselves on social media wearing hoodies. James included the hashtag #WeWantJustice. Later photos appeared of Wade and James with the rest of their Miami Heat teammates, all wearing hoodies, with their faces turned solemnly to the ground. On March 21, 2012, in New York, activists held a “Million Hoodie March.”
Martin had worn the gray hoodie in which he was shot, and another black one, “spring, summer, winter, and fall, even though Miami really only has one season: hot,” his mother, Sybrina Fulton, wrote in her book, “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin.” Fulton didn’t like it at first, but came around once she realized that hoodies were in style for teenagers in Miami, where they lived. Her son, she figured, was making a “fashion statement.”
In the days after the shooting, the hoodie became a piece of evidence, and a point of contention. When Zimmerman was interviewed by a Sanford police detective, he said he’d learned about identifying suspects at a neighborhood watch event, according to a case exhibit. The detective gave him a bit of a lecture: “If you guys continue neighborhood watch, typically speaking at nighttime the garb is black on black with a black hoodie. Now, this guy had a dark gray hoodie … but his pants were beige. Not quite your, you know, prime suspect type.”
Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, wasn’t charged until a month after the shooting. In preparation for his trial, prosecutors had the hoodie placed in an enormous frame with white matting. Its arms were spread wide, almost evoking a religious relic. It took two members of the prosecution team to carry the cumbersome display into the courtroom, a dramatic moment etched in the memory of anyone in the courtroom or watching live television coverage.
After Zimmerman’s July 2013 acquittal on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, prosecutors passed the hoodie, still in its frame, to the Sanford Police Department, the law enforcement agency that had come under such scorching criticism for its initial handling of the case, including the decision not to arrest Zimmerman.
In a secure room, officers disassembled the frame and placed the hoodie in an evidence bag, a police spokesman told The Post at the time. The hoodie, along with Martin’s unopened fruit drink and candy, were then driven to a U.S. Department of Justice office in Orlando, where civil rights charges were being considered.
Its final destination was uncertain. But it continued to fascinate. International headlines were generated by a comment, deep in the text of a Washington Post story, from a Smithsonian official who said he thought the hoodie had historical value and he’d like to see it displayed sometime. There was so much buzz that the Smithsonian issued a statement saying it had no current plans to display the hoodie.
Nineteen months passed. Finally, in February 2015, the Justice Department announced it would not bring charges against Zimmerman.
The hoodie had officially ceased to be evidence. It was now something else, something yet to be fully defined. A dead boy’s clothes? A physical manifestation of a family’s grief? A symbol of something more? Or nothing more?
Sometime after the Justice Department’s decision, he doesn’t remember the exact date, a package arrived at the Florida home of Tracy Martin. Inside were Trayvon’s cellphone, the bag of Skittles, the fruit drink, his white Air Jordans and other items from the night of the shooting, Tracy Martin said in a recent interview. There was also a vaccuum-sealed bag, the father recalled. Inside it was Trayvon’s neatly folded hoodie.
Tracy Martin placed it all in a box. He put the box in a closet.
He didn’t want it someplace visible, he didn’t want “a constant reminder.”
“Who we gonna put them on exhibit for?” he thought at the time.
And there they stayed, until a chance encounter about three years later.
Martin and Trayvon’s mother, Fulton, were in Washington for a screening of the television documentary series, “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.” At a reception, they met a historian from the Smithsonian, Aaron Bryant. They clicked.
The parents told Bryant about the powerful emotions elicited by seeing an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture about another young Black boy. The exhibit told the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder after he was — almost certainly falsely — accused of propositioning a White woman, was one of the signal moments of the civil rights era, Bryant said in an interview. Till’s killers, who were White, were acquitted by an all-White jury, but later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview.
From that conversation at the Rest in Power reception, an idea began to form: Trayvon’s possessions could be deployed to tell another, more modern story about race and justice in America.
Bryant flew to Florida for meetings at the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which was set up by the slain teenager’s parents, and their son, Jahvaris Fulton, with a stated mission of “ending senseless gun violence.” On one trip, Bryant brought along Rex Ellis, head of curatorial affairs for the museum. Everyone was in tears. Ellis, who is a minister, brought a “sense of peace,” Bryant recalled. They mediated and said a prayer.
At one meeting, Bryant was accompanied by the museum’s head of collections and its security director. They’d fashioned a special box for Trayvon’s things. They bought a plane ticket for the box, and placed it on the seat between them for the flight back to Washington.
“They didn’t want this package out of their sight. They never took their hands off this package,” Bryant said. “It was part of a promise we made to the family … to have our head of security be that invested in protecting and preserving our history.”
All this was done quietly. The Smithsonian made no announcement.
The hoodie and the Skittles and all the rest were secreted to climate-controlled rooms where they spent nearly three years.
It wasn’t until last fall that the hoodie was put on display for the first time. The hoodie — along with other items, such as the shoes and pants Trayvon wore on the night of his death — are included in an exhibit about Civil War Reconstruction at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that is scheduled to run through Aug. 21. Bryant sees a thread that runs back more than 150 years from the night a boy in a hoodie lay dead in Sanford, Fla., to the post-Civil War area when constitutional amendments were passed banning slavery and ensuring equal rights and legal protections to enslaved people who had been emancipated.
“His rights and the rights of his family, actually, as guaranteed by those amendments — amendments that really are so central to defining our democracy — they were violated,” Bryant said. “He didn’t get due process under the law. … He was tried and executed by a neighborhood watch person.”
Trayvon’s hoodie sits behind glass now, mounted on a display board that tilts back slightly. The arms aren’t spread wide, as they’d been in the courtroom, a posture that back then seemed to say, “Wake up! Look at this. Look at what can happen.”
Instead they’re folded forwarded, as they might be in a moment of quiet reflection. A museum official stands nearby gently advising each visitor as they arrive that no pictures of the hoodie, and Trayvon’s other items, are allowed. That’s how his parents want it. They don’t want people taking photos and using them for some abusive purpose, Tracy Martin said. He’d rather people just take it all in without distraction.
“It’s a justice piece,” Martin said of the display. “You have to look at it — and you see the scales of justice are unbalanced.”
On a recent afternoon, a little boy tugged on his mother’s arm, asking for just a few more moments in front of the hoodie. He couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9. Other youngsters have stood before the display, as well. This one happened to be White.
His mother indulged him for a while. Then, she made a promise: When they got back to their hotel, they’d get on the Internet and study some more about Trayvon Martin.