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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.