TODAY   |  July 20, 2013

Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin could’ve been me’

Without warning, President Obama surprised reporters Friday by walking into the White House briefing room and speaking for the first time about the George Zimmerman verdict. NBC’s Kristen Welker reports and msnbc’s Melissa Harris Perry weighs in.

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>>> the president's surprise comments about race in america. he surprised everyone about his own comments about his personal experiences. kristen is live. good morning.

>> reporter: good morning. it was an extraordinary day. the white house has been covering this for two years now. when ever the president comes out to speak in the briefing room, the reporters are given a heads up. that didn't happen on friday. the president came out and surprised everyone. the other thing that made this so notable, he was deeply personable.

>> when trayvon martin was first shot, i said this could have been my son. another way of saying that is trayvon martin could have been me 35 years ago.

>> reporter: now these were the president's most extensive comments about race since 2008 . back then, he was a candidate. on friday, he was speaking as a second term president. someone not afraid of re-election. he was free to express his emotions, feelings, his own personal experiences. he spoke for 18 minutes, which is a fairly long period of time for him to come out and speak in the briefing room. part of the goal is to put the heated and emotional reaction to the george zimmerman verdict in a broader context.

>> there are very few african-american men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed shopping in a store. that includes me. there are few african-american men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing locks click on the doors of cars. that happens to me, at least before i was a senator.

>> the conversation continues today. there will be vigils throughout the country, 100 of them organized by reverend al sharpton . trayvon martin's parents will speak at some of those events. back to you.

>> thank you.

>> melissa harris perry, good morning to you.

>> good morning.

>> the president walks into the briefing room unannounced and had a lot to say. what is your reaction to the timing and tone of the president's message?

>> the timing was stunning. we were prepping for the show i do on saturday mornings. we had a very different show planned. the president came out. it wasn't planned. it wasn't on the schedule. it's indicative of the fact he was speaking from the heart. he made this decision to speak as early as yesterday evening. it felt as though it was a president groping and searching not just coming out and declaring something.

>> critics were quick to criticize him. the commissioner on human rights said it could ratchet up racial tension . what do you say to folk who is say his remarks might have unintended negative consequences?

>> certainly the politics of it is not good for him in general. so, i think part of what this president, who has been very frustrated in policy initiatives was thinking the symbolism of his presidency. i think he hoped it would be racially healing for the country. whatever happened left, right, democrat or republican. he, since this moment, post zimmerman verdict there was a racial unhealing, a racial undoing and he wasn't going to have a possibility of bringing people together he was going to have to speak.

>> supporters wanted him to come out earlier. he had a series of interviews where no one asked him about it. what do you think of the timing? why now?

>> i have been watching him. he's dlib rative. he's careful. i'm sure he's been thinking about this. chris and i were together on the night of the verdict. i suspect this president like many african-american parents was talking to his family and children and absorbing what might have felt emotional to him. as president, his department of justice is making a decision of how they are going to go forward with the investigation. at the level of federal charges. i'm sure he's moving carefully because that is still in play.

>> he was careful to say this is not a brand-new program he's going to introduce. this isn't about a national conversation on race. are those the kind of thing that is are going to have to happen if there's going to be a real change ?

>> maybe. 1963 , jfk stood in front of the nation saying the children of birmingham, alabama called us to be better and we need a national civil rights act . it passed in 1964 . we are 50 years after that and we are still struggling. it's not clear that federal programs change this. they change many critically important things. incredibly important. it doesn't always alter the hearts and minds . part of what people are feeling angst about today.

>> thank you for that. you can catch her show weekends at 10:00 eastern on msnbc.