Long Island civil rights leaders Friday applauded President Barack Obama's decision to wade into the polarizing debate over the Trayvon Martin shooting -- and speak from the heart on race.
In his emotional remarks, Obama described the experiences of many African-American men, including himself as a young man, who believe they've been racially profiled.
"I see it as an opening of the door for America to talk about race," said the Rev. Sedgwick Easley of Union Baptist Church in Hempstead.
"What he did today was what many in our community thought he would never do," Easley said. "He touched on an issue that was not just political, but he dealt with an issue that was personal, and he did it for those who feel that they are victims, who have thought they are alone . . . not valued."
Since George Zimmerman was acquitted a week ago in Florida for killing the unarmed Martin, 17, there have been national protests, vigils and calls for repealing "stand your ground" laws and "stop and frisk" policies that critics say have backfired, making neighborhoods more dangerous.
"There's a lack of urgency about how real and how profound racial disparities are," said Deidra Parrish Williams, executive director of the East Meadow-based NuHealth Foundation, who recently helped organize a Long Island forum on race relations.
"The truth is, it's not the responsibility of the president to move the racial dialogue," she said of Obama's remarks. "Has he moved the public sentiment? Probably."
"I think the president pretty much hit the nail on the head," said Annette Dennis, Nassau chapter president of the National Action Network, a civil rights group. Dennis is among those calling for a federal investigation into the Martin shooting.
Intensifying the debate, she said, are concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court's partial overturning of the Voting Rights Act will disenfranchise minority voters.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. marched to Washington, D.C., Dennis said there are concerns about a lack of progress in eradicating racism.
"We have not realized the 'dream,' especially when you can turn around and repeal Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act," she said. The section determined which states must receive federal clearance before making changes to voting procedures.
But Easley was heartened by Obama's personal reflections on race.
"All of us know what it's like to be on an elevator and to see a Caucasian, and to see them clutch their purse and to look at you as a stranger," he said.
The Rev. Roger C. Williams, who leads the NAACP's Glen Cove chapter, said Obama's remarks weren't without risk, such as "backlash from conservative politicians."
Calling for more discussion on race and racism, Williams said: "God gave us the gift of diversity. We have not yet done the job of integrating each other ... so that America can show the world what we can really look like."