Obama: Martin 'could have been me' 35 years ago

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 19, 2013. Obama says black Americans feel pain after the Trayvon Martin verdict because of a "history that doesn't go away." Obama spoke in a surprise appearance Friday at the White House, his first time appearing for a statement on the verdict since it was issued last Saturday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
July 20, 2013 6:30:16 AM PDT
President Barack Obama kept his own counsel after the six women deciding whether George Zimmerman deserved prison time for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin delivered their verdict, releasing just a written statement appealing for calm the day after the ex-neighborhood watchman had been cleared of all charges.

But the president was quietly keeping tabs on the country's response to the outcome of the racially charged trial, particularly in the black community. He discussed it with his family. He was ready to address it during a series of interviews with Spanish-language TV stations earlier in the week, if asked. He wasn't.

By Thursday, aides said Obama was telling top advisers the country needed to hear from him, not in a way the White House would script it but in a frank discussion of his views and experiences as a black man in America.

On Friday, he stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room and delivered a rare and extensive reflection on race by a president who has shied away from the issue even as he is constantly dogged by it.

"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," Obama said. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

For Obama, the product of black-white parentage who has written about his own struggles with racial identity but has kept the subject at arm's length in office, his remarks represented an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation's first black president and of the longing by many black Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.

"When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that ... doesn't go away," he said.

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me," Obama said.

A Florida jury last Saturday acquitted Zimmerman, 29, of all charges in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon, who was 17 and unarmed. The outcome cheered those who agreed that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense and angered and disappointed those who believe the teenager was targeted and pursued by Zimmerman because he was black.

Despite the emotional aspect to his comments, Obama appeared to signal that the Justice Department is unlikely to charge Zimmerman with violating Trayvon's civil rights, despite intense pressure to do so from the NAACP and others. An NAACP petition urging the department to charge Zimmerman has collected more than 1.5 million signatures.

Obama said people should have "some clear expectations" about any Justice Department action because issues regarding the criminal code traditionally "are issues of state and local government."

Obama, too, had been under pressure from civil rights leaders and others to speak out, but he resisted doing so until Friday. His only comment on the verdict was the paper statement issued Sunday calling Trayvon's death a tragedy for the country and urging the public to heed the "call for calm reflection" from the boy's grieving parents.

Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict -- "once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works" -- he gave voice to the feelings of those who were angered by the decision.

Obama said there's a sense "that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."

He said he was considering a number of steps, including law enforcement training, examining state and local "stand your ground" laws to see if they encourage the kinds of confrontations that ended with Trayvon's death and how to give black boys "the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them."

He also called on the country to search its soul.

Obama said Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, had shown incredible grace and dignity throughout. He did not mention the feelings of Zimmerman, who relatives say has been threatened with death.

Trayvon's parents released a statement calling Obama's comments "a beautiful tribute to our boy."

Zimmerman's brother, Robert, also welcomed the president's remarks. He told Fox News "the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of."

Despite that fact that Obama's race has been central to the story of his political rise, he has rarely addressed the matter as a public figure. He last spoke about race in substantive and personal terms as a presidential candidate in 2008 when he addressed criticism over incendiary comments by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In 2009, Obama stumbled when commenting on the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the professor's home, saying the police "acted stupidly." He was forced to retract his comment, then held an awkward "beer summit" at the White House with the professor, Henry Louis Gates, and the white arresting officer.

But on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about public distrust of many black men, including him before he became well-known, saying they draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk by.

He sought to end on a more positive note, saying the U.S. gets better with each passing generation despite lingering racial discord. He sees the progress when listening to his daughters and watching them with their friends.

"They're better than we were on these issues," Obama said. "We're becoming a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."

Zimmerman Defense Comments on President Obama's Remarks

    "We have listened to President Obama's comments about the verdict in the Zimmerman Case. People are focusing on this quote: "Trayvon Martin could've been me 35 years ago." To focus on this one line misses the nuances of the President's message, which includes comments about how African Americans view the Zimmerman Case in the context of the history of racial disparity in America.

    For more than a year, we have been listening to the conversation about this case -- from voices on every side -- and we have become very sensitive to the racial context that surrounds this case. We acknowledge Mr. Obama's remarks regarding the frustration felt by some when viewed in context of our nation's history, which includes racial insensitivities spanning generations, and existing even today, including within our criminal justice system.

    While we acknowledge and understand the racial context of this case, we challenge people to look closely and dispassionately at the facts. We believe those who look at the facts of the case without prejudice will see that it is a clear case of self-defense, and we are certain that those who take a closer look at the kind of person George Zimmerman is -- something we understand the Department of Justice is currently doing -- we are confident they will find a young man with a diverse ethnic and racial background who is not a racist, a man who is, in fact, sensitive to the complex racial history of our country.

    It takes courage to talk about race. It took courage for our President to address the Zimmerman Case and candidly discuss how and why people are upset by the verdict. We would like to stress that the verdict was reached fairly and justly and that it reflects the letter of the law and represents the law's proper application to the facts. While we acknowledge the racial context of the case, we hope that the President was not suggesting that this case fits a pattern of racial disparity, because we strongly contend that it does not.

    This case has given the nation an opportunity to have a candid conversation about race. We would like to contribute to this discourse. Our President has clearly indicated he is willing to contribute to the discourse. As we begin this conversation, we want to say this: we cannot talk about race in sound bites. Before you cast an opinion about what the President said, be sure to listen to his comments in full. Before you judge George Zimmerman or disparage the verdict of the citizen jury, understand the facts in full. Agree not to listen to just what meets your predisposition, but to accept what exists.

    Only in this way can we assure that the conversations we want to have, that we need to have, will be attended and listened to by those whose presence is necessary for a full discourse -- a discourse that can have positive consequences for our growth as a nation."

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