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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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July 19th, 2013
07:07 PM ET

Historian: Trayvon Martin will be a dark moment in U.S. history, Obama now part of that story

Being the first African-American president has put President Barack Obama in an interesting, sometimes difficult position when it comes to issues involving race. Back in 2008, then-candidate Obama distanced himself from controversial remarks made by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

"The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we have never really worked through. A part of our union that we have not yet made perfect," Obama said in Philadelphia in 2008.

"That was a brilliantly crafted speech, that's one for the ages," Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian with Rice University, said of the 2008 remarks.

Friday's speech – when in unscheduled and unusually personal remarks Obama tried to explain why African-Americans were upset about last week's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin – were less historical, according to Brinkley.

"It's interesting I think more as personal remarks, than an address to the nation. And the president was just having this burden on his back and felt that he needed to confront all this," said Brinkley.

The Philadelphia speech from five years ago showcased the Barack Obama many Americans fell in love with, said the historian, one who could talk openly about Jim Crow and slavery.

"Today he was simply expressing more of a frustration of what happened in Florida, and it might become a rally cry for the Democrats in the midterm election," said Brinkley.

"In the biography of President Obama, this will be a significant couple of pages, that he was willing to step out," said Brinkley.

The remarks will also likely have a place in the president's legacy.

"Since he was the first African-American president, historians are always going to look on how he dealt with race, and this was a significant event today," said Brinkley. "It's not often a president likes to throw himself into a court case and Barack Obama just did."

"Trayvon Martin is like Emmett Till, it's going to be known as a dark moment in U.S. history, and the president has part of that story," said Brinkley.

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