WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday implored Americans to "do some soul searching" following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, speaking expansively and introspectively about the nation's painful history of race and his own place in it.
Directly wading into the polarizing debate over last weekend's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Mr. Obama tried to explain the case through the lens of past discrimination that still weighs heavily on African-Americans.
The nation's first black president, recognizing the disconnect between how whites and blacks were reacting to the Zimmerman verdict, sought to explain why the acquittal had upset so many African-Americans.
"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," Mr. Obama said.
The president first inserted himself into the controversy surrounding Martin's killing in March 2012, when he said from the Rose Garden, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." On Friday, he recalled that statement and added, "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
Mr. Obama's 18 minutes of remarks, delivered extemporaneously during a surprise afternoon appearance in the White House briefing room, was the most extended discussion of race in his presidency. He has generally avoided talking about race relations, although he delivered a memorable speech on the topic during the 2008 campaign and wrote about his own discrimination in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
A Florida jury's ruling last Saturday that Mr. Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the killing of Martin has inspired protests and a heated national debate over racial profiling and gun laws. With the Justice Department reviewing the case and weighing bringing federal civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman, the president offered no opinion on the verdict itself.
Mr. Obama followed reaction to the trial all week, talking about it with family and friends, a senior administration official said. He summoned his top aides Thursday to tell them he wanted to comment publicly on the shooting death of Martin as well as the discrimination he has felt personally.
Mr. Obama wanted to "speak from the heart," the official said, explaining why he opted against reading from a prepared script. He spoke in a hushed and at times halting voice, pausing periodically to compose his thoughts.
"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," Mr. Obama said. "That includes me."
He continued: "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. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator, and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often."
Mr. Obama's remarks came ahead of a weekend of remembrance for Martin. The Rev. Al Sharpton is organizing "Justice for Trayvon" events in 130 cities today. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has declared Sunday a "Statewide Day of Prayer for Unity," while protesters hunkered down to spend the weekend in the State Capitol in Tallahassee.
Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said Friday that they were "deeply honored and moved" by Mr. Obama's remarks. "President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him," they said in a joint statement. "This is a beautiful tribute to our boy. Trayvon's life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come."
Robert Zimmerman Jr., brother of the defendant in the case, said on Fox News that he was glad Mr. Obama "spoke out today. ... I think he was very sincere in his remarks."
In his initial response to the acquittal, Mr. Obama issued a short written statement Sunday afternoon asking people to reflect calmly and "ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our communities."
White House officials said earlier this week that although the case stirred emotions, the option of Mr. Obama addressing the nation on camera was never discussed. Throughout the week, press secretary Jay Carney sidestepped questions about the president's personal reaction.
Still, officials said, Mr. Obama was prepared to answer questions about the verdict when he sat for interviews Wednesday with four Spanish-language television stations. Aides said they were surprised when he was not asked about the George Zimmerman case in the interviews, which focused primarily on immigration.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama informed his senior staff he wanted to share his thoughts, leading to his appearance at the podium Friday during Mr. Carney's scheduled daily briefing.
Civil rights leaders have been communicating with White House officials about the Zimmerman case, including a conference call Tuesday with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. But officials said they did not press Mr. Obama to speak publicly about the case.
Mr. Sharpton said he discussed the issue with Ms. Jarrett over breakfast Friday. "It was definitely his choice," Mr. Sharpton said, adding that Mr. Obama's comments "made us feel like at least we matter."
Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director for the NAACP, noted that Mr. Obama "doesn't come to this issue new," having worked on anti-racial profiling legislation both in Illinois and in the U.S. Senate. But he added that Mr. Obama has the ability "to bring his very unique perspective to the issue, so Americans can debate and discuss it" in a way they wouldn't otherwise.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama ruminated aloud about how the country could continue to overcome discrimination.
"Where do we take this?" he asked. "How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? ... Beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?"
Mr. Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, have talked a lot about ways to "bolster and reinforce our African-American boys." There is more that can be done, he said, to give black children a sense that they are a "full part of this society," and that the country is willing to invest in helping them succeed.
The president called for an examination of "stand your ground" laws, such as the one in Florida, that allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves.
First Published July 19, 2013 6:30 PM