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Obama: 'Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago'

President Obama at the White House on Friday, as he spoke about the death of Trayvon Martin and the national discussion that the case has generated.
Larry Downing
Reuters /Landov
President Obama at the White House on Friday, as he spoke about the death of Trayvon Martin and the national discussion that the case has generated.

"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," President Obama told reporters Friday afternoon. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

In extensive and personal comments concerning last Saturday's not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon in February 2012, the president said he wanted to add "context" to what's become an intense national discussion about the case and race relations.

"When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain," Obama said, "it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn't go away."

Obama said that "there are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they go shopping. That includes me."

He said many African-American men have heard car locks click when they cross a street — "that's happened to me." And he spoke of African-American men getting on elevators to see "a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she has a chance to get off."

"Those sets of experience inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," said the president.

Adding that he doesn't want to "make excuses" for the fact that young African-American men are "disproportionately ... both victims and perpetrators of violence," Obama also wondered whether if Trayvon had been a "white teen" instead of a young African-American, "from top to bottom both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."

As for how to respond, Obama:

-- Said violent protests would dishonor "what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family."

-- "Stand your ground" laws and any others that might "encourage" altercations rather than diffuse them need to be reexamined.

-- The nation needs to do some "soul searching."

He ended, though, by saying Americans should not "lose sight that things are getting better. ... Each successive generation is making progress in changing attitudes on race."

He sees that in his own daughters, Obama said: "They're better than we were."

Update at 7 p.m. ET. Trayvon's Parents Praise President's Words:

"President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him," the young man's parents say in a statement released Friday afternoon. "This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."

Robert Zimmerman, whose brother George is the man who shot Trayvon (George Zimmerman says he acted in self defense and a jury found him not guilty of murder or manslaughter) told Fox News he welcomes the president's words. "The American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of," he said.

Update at 2:55 p.m. ET. Text Of The President's Remarks.

We've posted a copy of the president's statement, as transcribed by the White House, and put it in the box below:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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