Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin could have been me, says Barack Obama in stirring speech

President candidly speaks of plight of young black men after outrage at Trayvon Martin ruling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 9:28am

"Wow" is what Joseph Jones of Baltimore said after watching US President Barack Obama's unexpected and deeply personal plea on race and crime on Friday.

Like many African-Americans, Jones, who is the president of the Centre for Urban Families in Baltimore, felt a surge of pride, recognition and hope, he said, when he heard the first African-American president speak so candidly about race relations in the US.

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago
Barack Obama

"We've grown in our society to a place where the leader of the free world can come out in the bully pulpit and talk honestly about race and young black men," Jones said. But the true test of progress would be if another, non-black president can be so honest, he added.

On Friday, reading an unusually personal, hand-written statement, Obama tackled the Trayvon Martin verdict, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Martin in a gated Florida neighbourhood.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said simply.

That line was shared more than 6,700 times on Twitter in the first three hours after the speech.

The moment punctuated a turbulent week marked by dozens of phone calls to the White House from black leaders, angry protests that lit up the internet and streets from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and anguished soul-searching by Obama.

Obama offered his own reflections and implicitly criticised gun laws and racial profiling methods - both of which, critics say, played a role in Martin's death.

He did not criticise either the conduct of the trial or the verdict, in which a jury found a neighbourhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman, not guilty of all charges in the killing of Martin in February last year.

But in the most expansive remarks he has made about race since becoming president, Obama offered three examples of the humiliations borne by young black men in America: being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or watching as women clutch their purses nervously when they step onto an elevator. The first two experiences, he said, had happened to him.

"Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," Obama said. "And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

For black leaders who had beseeched the president to speak out his remarks were greeted with a mixture of relief and satisfaction.

"We needed this president to use his bully pulpit," said the Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights activists and host on MSNBC.

Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said they were "deeply honoured and moved" by Obama's comments. "President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him," they said. "This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."

Still, some of the president's detractors responded with scepticism about his motives or even anger at what they saw as a divisive injection of race into the case. Others expressed sadness, saying the president seemed to be saying that the nation's racial divide would never end.

"The great achievement of our society, the possibility of not talking about race, has been moved even farther away and maybe out of reach forever," said Joseph Davis, an artist and frame shop owner in Boca Raton, Florida, after listening to Obama.