Barack Obama used an unexpected speech at the White House to personally address the debates over race relations that have convulsed America since George Zimmerman was acquitted over the shooting of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
In remarks immediately interpreted as the most expansive comments on race since he became president, Obama said the US was still not "a post-racial society".
"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.
"And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
The president's intervention surprised Washington. For almost a week, Obama has resisted getting involved the swirling debates over racial discrimination, and was coming under growing criticism for his failure to respond to strong public outrage.
Some African American leaders were saying privately that the president was failing to grasp the intensity of feeling over the case and at Thursday's White House press briefing, Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, was repeatedly pressed on why the president had failed to take a more public stance.
However on Friday, Obama surprised reporters by turning up at the briefing to deliver deeply personal remarks.
"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.
"There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me – at least before I was a senator.
"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 added: "And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."
Obama's remarks were echoed by Jesse Jackson, who told the Guardian in a video interview on Friday that "the stand-your-ground law lends itself to massive interpretations because it is so subjective. It is an incentive to shoot rather than a deterrent."
"We are free, but not equal," Jackson said, highlight the diminished access to healthcare in many black communities.
In taking such a bold stance, Obama risks criticism that he is seeking to politicise the Zimmerman trial. However, the White House is said to have realised the scale of feeling over the Zimmerman case, which has led to sporadic protests in cities including Washington, New York, Miami, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
On Saturday, another wave of demonstrations are planned outside federal buildings in 100 US cities.
Trayvon Martin's parents said they were "deeply honoured and moved" by Obama's remarks, saying they recognised their son's tragic death has become "a conduit for people to talk about race in America".
"We know that the death of our son Trayvon, the trial and the not guilty verdict have been deeply painful and difficult for many people," Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin said.
"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."
Senior figures in the civil rights movement have told the Guardian that fast-escalating resentment over the treatment of black Americans will result in larger-than-expected crowds descending on Washington next month for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.
They said the Zimmerman case has compounded a sense among many that America is moving backwards on civil rights issues, particularly in light of a recent supreme court to strike down key sections of a law that protects black voters.
Obama is understood to have been invited to play a central role in the King commemorations, which are likely to be a global spectacle, but has not yet publicly committed himself.
In his remarks on Friday, Obama invoked a line from King's famous speech when he said Americans should take part in an act of "soul-searching" and ask themselves: "Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?"
Obama appeared moved when he delivered his remarks at the White House, but was careful to temper the comments by recognising the progress that had been made.
"I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better," he said. "Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race."
He also said African Americans are "not naive" about the social problems that afflict its own community, such as the disproportionate number of young black men who have had experience of the criminal justice system. However, those observations had to be viewed in a historical context and could not justify discrimination, Obama said.
In one particularly pointed observation, Obama said there was a sense among black Americans that "if a white male teen" was involved in the same kind of scenario as Martin, then "both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different".
"I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family."
The president outlined four proposals that he said went "beyond protests or vigils". He said there should be efforts to review the training of police officers across the country "reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists", and root out racial bias in policing.
Second, he called for a review of self-defense laws such as those in Florida, that may encourage fatal confrontations when one side in a dispute is armed. Anyone who disagreed, he said, should consider what would have occurred if Martin was of age and armed when he became embroiled in an altercation with Zimmerman.
"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?" he said. "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."
The president's third proposal was to consider new ways to make young African American men feel that they're a full part of this society. "There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement," he said.
He finished by saying that an "appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy" was for Americans to look at honestly themselves to ask if they are free of prejudice.
He said the generations of Americans had made significant strides toward rance tolerance, but added: "It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated."