In Sanford, a Strong Post-Verdict Desire to Move Forward

After the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, many in Sanford say there is a need not just to return to normal, but to learn important lessons from the death of Trayvon Martin.

Posted: 07/15/2013 03:29 PM EDT

REPORTING FROM SANFORD, FLORIDA — With just a few short days to come to terms with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, the city of Sanford is clearly taking steps to find meaning in the international event that took place here and to move forward.

In every corner in this city of 54,000 people in central Florida that few Americans had heard of before the death of Trayvon Martin, there seems to be a fervent desire to place the events of the last 17 months in some perspective and to learn lessons. From churches and coffeehouses to barbershops and restaurants, everyone here seems to want to return to some sense of normalcy, but with some distinctions.

In the months since the killing of Trayvon Martin, ministers have been meeting with each other and community and civic leaders have developed formal and informal alliances to gain better understanding of some of the issues that have caused divisions in this small town in the outskirts of Orlando.

“We can’t just go on and hope that something like this won’t happen again, because it could,” said the Rev. John Murphy, the pastor of the Harvest Times Ministries in Sanford, in an interview with BET.com

“We have to do better than before. And we have been meeting with one another, visiting each other’s congregations,” Murphy said, referring to various pastors in Sanford. “It’s been a revolution to see that our city is ready to be born again. It’s awesome to watch.”

Nothing symbolized that desire as strongly as a midday prayer event on Monday that was attended by local ministers as well as Jeff Triplett, the mayor of Sanford and the city’s police chief, Cecil Smith. Held at the New Life Word Center Church by a group called Sanford Pastors Connecting, the event included remarks from several local figures who emphasized that there were racial divisions here that needed to be healed.

There were prayers for the city. There were prayers for racial reconciliation. There were prayers for the family of the dead teenager whose death set off a trial watched throughout the world. And there were prayers for the man, now free, who shot the unarmed teenager.

It was a spirited event that echoed themes that are heard throughout this city. Triplett said that the people of Sanford were determined to come together no matter their racial background to enhance understanding between residents of Sanford.

Sanford is a city that is roughly 30 percent African-American and 20 percent Hispanic, with the balance of the city being white. Yet, there are strong divisions between the races here that rose to the surface with the death of Trayvon Martin.

Many of the leaders here expressed pride in the fact that the verdict was not met with any violence or disruptions.

“Everyone wants to see us act up,” said Smith, the police commissioner, speaking to the 150 residents who gathered at the church. “But this community came together and is coming together to talk about where we are today and how we can move forward. Everyone is watching the people in Sanford. And everyone is noting that we are coming together.”

Even before the death of Trayvon Martin, there were efforts among city leaders to increase the level of dialogue between various components of Sanford’s population.

“We had things in process before this unfortunate event,” said Mayor Triplett, in an interview with BET.com.

“But now, we really are working together,” Triplett said. “We need to turn a tragedy into an opportunity to make us a better people, to make sure that we stand united to make this a better place. “

He added: “We can become the spokespeople for the nation to tell how. We all may not have liked how things turned out. But we can demonstrate that we can talk about it and talk with each other and make the changes that we feel need to be made.”

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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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