By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday jumped into the debate over the acquittal of the man who killed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, declaring that Martin "could have been me, 35 years ago" and urging Americans to understand the pain blacks felt over the case.
Obama abruptly appeared in the White House press briefing room to offer his thoughts on the trial of George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch volunteer who was found not guilty of murder for shooting Martin, 17, in a struggle in 2012.
The televised trial and Saturday's verdict highlighted contentious issues such as racial profiling, with many blacks arguing that Zimmerman chose to follow Martin because he was black, and rejecting Zimmerman's self-defense argument.
Without saying so specifically, Obama sided with those who say the shooting need not have happened, expressing sympathy to the Martin family and praising them for the "incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation."
He said the case was properly handled in the Florida court and acknowledged the relevance of the jury finding reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case. He questioned "stand your ground" self-defense laws that have been adopted in 30 states.
Obama, however, said Americans should understand the perspective of the black community, which has suffered a long history of racial discrimination.
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," he said somberly.
Obama, 51, born in Hawaii to a black Kenyan father and white American mother, recalled his own encounters with racism and racial profiling.
"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. That includes me," he said.
He said he sometimes heard the clicks of car doors locking when he walked across the street in his younger days.
"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," he said.
Citing the experiences of his teenage daughters, Obama said younger generations have fewer issues with racism. Still, he said, Americans need to do some "soul searching" on whether they harbor prejudice and should judge people not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
"Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated ... We're becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union," he said.
The Zimmerman verdict has produced a mixed reaction from Americans. A Reuters-Ipsos online poll found 34 percent agreed with the verdict, while 39 percent opposed it. It also found 68 percent did not approve of racial profiling by police. The July 16-19 surveyed 616 Americans and had a "credibility interval" of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
After issuing a written statement on Sunday, Obama kept silent publicly on the case as some reacted angrily to the verdict. An aide said Obama had watched the coverage of the case on television and had talked to friends and family about it.
He informed some senior staff on Thursday that he wanted to address the issue publicly. An appearance at the start of White House press secretary Jay Carney's daily briefing was deemed the best venue.
PRAISE FOR OBAMA
Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, issued a statement on Friday praising Obama and saying they were aware that their son's death and the jury's verdict had been deeply painful and difficult for many people.
"What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy," they said.
Leaders of the black community also praised Obama.
"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," said Benjamin Jealous, the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights group.
Noting racial disparities in the application of criminal law ranging from the death penalty to drug enforcement, Obama urged the Justice Department to work with local governments to reduce mistrust in the justice system and said states should ensure their laws did not provoke incidents like the Martin killing.
Obama specifically mentioned Florida's "stand-your-ground" law, which allows individuals to use reasonable force to defend themselves without any obligation to retreat or flee. Critics of the Sanford police department's investigation of Zimmerman say it was central to the decision not to arrest him immediately.
The law did not factor in Zimmerman's trial, though a juror cited it in acquitting him.
"I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws," said Obama.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson, Jackie Frank and Paul Simao)