SANFORD, Fla. -- Sanford, Fla., shopkeeper Harry Rowan stopped sweeping cigarette butts and leaves from the sidewalk in front of his antiques boutique to greet a small knot of passing preschoolers, offering them "high fives."
One by one, the little children, white and black, gave his palm an enthusiastic smack.
"Of all the towns to get the label of a bad place, it shouldn't be Sanford," said Rowan, 79, who has lived in the Seminole County seat for more than 30 years. "We all get along here."
But Sanford -- which calls itself "The Friendly City" and boasts a picturesque lakefront, a historic downtown with brick streets and a splash park for kids -- clearly has an image problem now.
It is known around the world as the place where Trayvon Martin, a black teenager carrying Skittles and a can of iced tea, was shot to death by a Neighborhood Watch captain who was not arrested.
During a special City Commission meeting Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton warned Sanford commissioners that the city risks "going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the 2st century" unless it arrests the shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman. The two Alabama cities were sites of notorious police injustices during civil-rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-1960s.
Sanford, which has hired a crisis-communications consultant to help distribute its immediate and long-term messages, is "most definitely" concerned about its image since the killing, said Nicholas Mcray, its economic development director.
He put together a series of talking points -- in the wake of the shooting -- designed to demonstrate that Sanford is a "community of good people with much to offer." He said city leaders hope that impression will endure after the spotlight fades from the city of 53,500, nearly a third of whom are black, according to the most recent U.S. census figures.
Some community leaders remain guarded about their comments.
Pam Czopp, executive director of the Greater Sanford Regional Chamber of Commerce, even declined an invitation to brag about the city, which has been the focus of fierce media attention since 17-year-old Trayvon was killed Feb. 26.
But City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. told reporters Tuesday that the city is working to make changes designed to satisfy critics who accuse the Police Department of botching the investigation and ignoring the concerns of blacks for years.
"I am now in the process of talking to the Department of Justice in instituting a mechanism whereby citizens ... can have their concerns heard by an independent agency," he said. At the same briefing, Darren Scott, acting police chief, said he hopes one day to rebuild the public's trust in the city's Police Department.
"It won't be easy," he said.
Although Martin's shooting death is a deep and complex issue, the burden of patching up old wounds doesn't fall to Sanford alone, said Dr. Scot French, associate professor of digital and public history at the University of Central Florida.
"I think the focus is larger than Sanford. The reason people are responding is because it's a symptom of a much larger problem," said French, who has spent several months educating himself on the city's history and recent resurgence. "This is the not the same South as the South of the 1920s when the Klan policed the community. It's a very different place: It's more diverse and has been the beneficiary of changes in society, but there's also a legacy -- it's America's legacy."
Tending three fishing poles at the Sanford marina, where he had snagged a pair of plump catfish from the shallow water, 58-year-old Richard Green said the teen's slaying has brought out grievances long hidden.
"It just might happen," Green said of Sharpton's prediction as he reeled in a copper-nosed bluegill. "A lot of stuff has been going on here for years. It's just bubbling up to the surface now, and everyone's finding out."
A few blocks away, Jim Dunn, who owns CMC Automotive on West Third Street, said he is heartsick over Trayvon Martin's death and upset about the nation's perception of Sanford, his family's home since 1891.
"This could happen in any town in America," said Dunn, 68. "People in this town -- black and white -- are good people . ... I've got customers of all races, and they're all upset by what's happened. They want justice, and they want it to come out what happened ... so we can deal with it the right way and move on together as a community."
James Davis, a retired insurance adjuster who raised two sons in Sanford, took issue with Sharpton's comparison. Davis, who is black, said he was involved in the civil-rights movement and sees a distinct difference between the cities.
"This is not about Sanford being a racist city. Sanford's not racist," said Davis, 64. "This is about one man who made a bad decision, and that's Chief (Bill) Lee."
Still, viewed through the complicated lens of race and justice, the violence against Trayvon is a painful reminder of times past, said Dr. Sharon Austin, who directs the African American Studies program at the University of Florida.
"There is a fear that if we don't do something with this case, it will be open season on black men," Austin said. "It reminds you of the things that used to go on all the time: young black people murdered by mostly white men that were never adequately punished."
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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