President Barack Obama has called on Americans to do some soul searching over the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, delivering an emotional public reflection on race that was rare for the country’s first black president.
Empathising with the pain of many black Americans, Mr Obama said the slain 17-year-old “could have been me 35 years ago.” He said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice “that doesn’t go away”.
Although Mr Obama has written about his own struggles with racial identity, the surprise speech marked his most extensive discussion of race as president and an unusual embrace of the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
“I think it’s important to recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Mr Obama said.
In many ways, it was the frank talk on what it can be like to be black in America that many African-Americans had been waiting to hear.
“Black people and brown people everywhere feel like they’ve been heard,” said Angela Bazemore, 56, an administrative assistant who lives in New York City.
A Florida jury last week acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defence, while others protested the outcome, believing Mr Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, had targeted Trayvon because he was black.
Trayvon was staying in the gated community where Mr Zimmerman lived and had gone out on a rainy evening last year to buy snacks at a store. Mr Zimmerman, who was armed with a handgun and was part of a neighbourhood watch organisation, spotted Trayvon and called authorities to report he thought the teenager was acting suspiciously.
Against the advice of an emergency dispatcher, who said police were on their way, Mr Zimmerman followed and shot the teenager when a scuffle or fight broke out.
Despite his emotional comments on the case, Mr Obama appeared to signal that the Justice Department was unlikely to file federal civil rights charges against Mr Zimmerman. Traditionally, he said, “these are issues of state and local government,” and he warned that the public should have “clear expectations.”
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict, he gave voice to the feelings held by many angered by the jury’s decisions.
There is a sense, Mr Obama said, “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.”
The president spoke emotionally about the teenager’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed incredible grace and dignity. He never mentioned the feelings of Mr Zimmerman, whose brother has said the former defendant has faced numerous death threats.
Trayvon’s parents released a statement following the remarks, saying, “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
Mr Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, also welcomed the president’s remarks, telling Fox News that “the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of”.