President Obama on Friday spoke more personally and extensively about U.S. race relations in years, prompting leaders in the African-American community to hail the president's remarks as an important step forward for the nation.
"I think the president did exactly what was needed, and he did it in only a way he can," Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told CBS News. "I believe he started a conversation today that must continue."
Politically, using the shooting of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman to talk about race was a risky move, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told CBSNews.com. Yet as a statesman, it was important for Mr. Obama "to lay out a vision of how best to move forward," he said. "It should be an important starting point for a conversation on race in America and how we can become a better society."
After a Florida jury on Saturday acquitted Zimmerman of murder, Mr. Obama gave a decidedly muted response, noting that the Justice Department was reviewing the case. On Friday, however, the president tried to use his personal perspective to help the nation understand why the case has been so dismaying for the African-African community.
"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could've been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Mr. Obamain the White House briefing room. "When you think about why in the African-American community, at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, it's important to recognize the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn't go away."
Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said in a statement that they were touched that the president "sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him." The applauded the president for encouraging an open dialogue about race.
"We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America and to try and talk about the difficult issues that we need to bring into the light in order to become a better people," they said. "Trayvon's life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come."
Jeffries, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who has been critical of the Florida verdict, told CBSNews.com that Mr. Obama's remarks today were "heartfelt, thoughtful, powerful and respectful of the judicial system."
The president, Jeffries said, conveyed Martin's point of view in a compelling way "that the prosecutors in Florida failed to do."
The Zimmerman case put intense scrutiny on the "stand your ground laws" that exist in Florida and other states, even though Zimmerman's attorneys team did not use the law as part of its defense.
About 15 members of the CBC met with officials from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Friday, where they expressed concerns about "stand your ground" laws and talked about working on legislation to address those laws. One member who attended the meeting told CBS News that Justice Department officials did not mention their investigation of the Zimmerman case or any plans for charges.