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African-American leaders hail Obama's remarks as a major step forward

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 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. Obama said in an unexpected appearance in 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 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.

Jeffries told that lawmakers should also consider ways to increase diversity in police departments across the country. Lawmakers should also, he said, "evaluate whether systematic activity like the 'stop-and-frisk' program in New York can be monitored and modified in such a way as to strike the appropriate balance with law enforcement on the one hand and protecting civil liberties on the other."

Jeffries called stop-and-frisk "the most organized form of racial profiling that exists anywhere in the country."

In a Tuesday interview with a New York Univision affiliate, Mr. Obama said New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly has been an "outstanding leader" in New York. He stopped short of saying whether he would consider Kelly to be his next Department of Homeland Security secretary but called him "well-qualified" for the position.

Jeffries told that to the extent that Kelly is considered for the position, "I'm confident the president will evaluate his entire track record, including the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program."

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While Mr. Obama's remarks Friday were very personal, he also explicitly spoke about the significant racial disparities still exist in the criminal justice system, from the death penalty to the enforcement of drug laws.

"Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact," Mr. Obama said. "Although, black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that, some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country. And that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history."

NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous called Mr. Obama's remarks a "powerful moment."

"That our president has been profiled should encourage all Americans to think deeply about both the depth of this problem and how our country moves beyond it," he said in a statement. "The President's call to examine the role state laws, including Stand Your Ground, play in compounding racial profiling is especially welcome. Let us move forward to bring justice for Trayvon Martin and toward a more united nation that is truly safe for all Americans."

One of Mr. Obama's earlier attempts to engage in a national conversation about race turned into a bit of a sideshow. The president caused some controversy in 2009 when he said Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant James Crowley (a white officer) acted "stupidly" when he arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (an African-American Harvard professor) in Gates' own home. Seeking a "teachable moment" in the wake of the uproar, Mr. Obama ended up holding a "beer summit" at the White House with Gates, Crowley and Vice President Joe Biden.

The president walked back his comments, but the story of his remarks and the proposed "beer summit" took on a life of its own, receiving overwhelming media coverage.

"Many people feel President Obama has a special obligation to focus on these issues because he's the first black president," Richard Ford, an expert on civil rights and antidiscrimination law at Stanford Law School, told earlier this week. "On the other hand, other people would be suspicious that he was inappropriately biased on the issue. He's walking a tightrope with respect to these issues, and that probably explains some of his reticence."

Jeffries said that Mr. Obama shouldn't be held to any kind of different standard than former presidents who spoke about race, including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton.

"When it's appropriate as it was today, Barack Obama should have the freedom to speak with an open mind and an open heart on matters as race," he said. "I'm hopeful his remarks will be embraced in that spirit and not put into any partisan political context."

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