The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin reverberated from church pulpits to street protests across the country Sunday in a renewed debate about race, crime and how the U.S. justice system handled a racially polarizing killing of a young black man walking in a quiet neighborhood in Florida.
Members of the clergy and demonstrators who assembled in parks and squares on a hot July day described the verdict by the six-person jury as evidence of a persistent racism that afflicts the nation six years after it elected its first African-American president.
"Trayvon Benjamin Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are seen not as a person but a problem," the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told a congregation once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Warnock noted that the verdict came a month after the Supreme Court voted, 5-4, to void a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "The last few weeks have been pivotal to the consciousness of black America," he said in an interview after services. "Black men have been stigmatized."
Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had faced charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter -- and the prospect of decades in jail, if convicted -- stemming from his fatal shooting of the Martin youth, 17, on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, a modest Central Florida city. But late Saturday night, Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges by the jurors, all of them women and none of them black, who had deliberated for more than 16 hours over two days.
In Sanford on Sunday, the Rev. Valarie Houston drew shouts of support and outrage at Allen Chapel AME Church as she denounced "the racism and the injustice that pollute the air in America."
"Lord, I thank you for sending Trayvon to reveal the injustices, God, that live in Sanford," she said.
Mr. Zimmerman and his supporters dismissed race as a factor in the death of the Martin youth. The defense team argued that Mr. Zimmerman had acted in self-defense as the teen slammed Mr. Zimmerman's head on a sidewalk. Florida law explicitly gives civilians the power to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel that their lives are in danger.
Mr. Zimmerman's brother, Robert, told National Public Radio that race was not a factor in the case, adding: "I never have a moment where I think that my brother may have been wrong to shoot. He used the sidewalk against my brother's head."
President Barack Obama, who had said shortly after the Martin youth was killed that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, urged the nation to accept the verdict.
"The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy," Mr. Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. "Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."
Nonetheless, the reaction to the verdict suggested that racial relations remained polarized in many parts of this country, particularly regarding the American justice system and the police.
"I pretty well knew that Mr. Zimmerman was going to be let free, because if justice was blind of colors, why wasn't there any minorities on the jury?" said Willie Pettus, 57, of Richmond, Va.
The Justice Department said it would review the case to determine if it should consider a federal prosecution.
Many blacks, and some whites, questioned whether Mr. Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, would have been acquitted if he were black and the Martin youth were white.
"He would have been in jail already," Leona Ellzy, 18, said as she visited a monument to the Martin youth in Goldsboro, the historically black neighborhood of Sanford. "The black man would have been in prison for killing a white child."
Jeff Fard, a community organizer in a black neighborhood in Denver, said the Martin youth would be alive today if he were not black. "If the roles were reversed, Trayvon would have been instantly arrested and, by now, convicted," he said. "Those are realities that we have to accept."
But even race's role in the case became a matter of a debate. One of Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers, Mark O'Mara, said he also thought the outcome would have been different if his client were black -- but for reasons entirely different from those suggested by people like Mr. Fard.
"He never would have been charged with a crime," Mr. O'Mara said.
"This became a focus for a civil rights event, which again is a wonderful event to have," he said. "But they decided that George Zimmerman would be the person who they were to blame and sort of use as the creation of a civil rights violation, none of which was borne out by the facts. The facts that night were not borne out that he acted in a racial way."
In Atlanta, Tommy Keith, 62, a white retired Cadillac salesman, rejected any contention that this was anything more than a failed murder case presented by the state. "The state's got to prove their case, OK?" he said. "They didn't. Stand Your Ground law is acceptable with me, and these protests are more racial than anything else. In my opinion, it's not a racial thing."
Within moments of the announcement of the verdict Saturday night and continuing through Sunday, demonstrations, some planned and some impromptu, arose in neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, New York City, Atlanta and other cities. There were no reports of serious violence or arrests as the day went on, a contrast with the riots that swept Los Angeles after the verdict in another race-tinged case, the 1992 acquittal of white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, a black construction worker.