When future historians write about America's long struggle for racial equality, they will include the moment when the country's first African-American president broke his silence about the 2012 death of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. President Barack Obama said, "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
President Barack Obama made that startling observation in a surprise visit before reporters gathered in the White House pressroom on Friday afternoon. His comments came nearly one week after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Martin. Many civil rights leaders, who were unhappy about the verdict, had been pressuring the president to say something.
President Obama did not challenge the jury's finding. He said, "The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works."
The president's purpose was to provide what he called "context" about how some people were responding the verdict. He spoke of their pain and observed, "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."
Among the experiences he cited, "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. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator." He said it is through these kinds of experiences that "the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida."
President Obama added that "things are getting better" with each generation when it comes to racial bias. But he did propose training for law enforcement and the justice system to lessen potential bias in the system. And, in a clear reference to the controversial "stand your ground" laws, which exist in 26 states, he called for their review, "to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse" them.
He then wondered aloud, "If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
The president offered no federal programs. He also said he didn't feel he should convene a national conversation on race because it would become politicized. Instead, he suggested that families, local communities and churches reflect on the issue. He also asked that they consider how they are doing a better job helping young African Americans feel they are a full part of society who have pathways for success.
Mr. Obama's heartfelt words Friday were powerful, personal and presidential. While the Zimmerman-Martin verdict has divided the nation, it has once again exposed an underlying problem in our society. But the president concluded his remarks on a hopeful note, "Along this long, difficult journey, we're becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."