President Barack Obama fielded one tough question at his town hall meeting at Benedict College Friday.
Why did U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in the audience, decide not to prosecute a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black man?
Casually pacing along the stage with his sleeves rolled up, Obama said the federal government had a role to play in that incident only if there had been a “miscarriage of justice.”
In the Brown case, the Justice Department found the state’s decision not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson was fair, he said.
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"We may never know exactly what happened” in the events leading up to the shooting, Obama said.
But Wilson, "like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and a reasonable doubt standard,” the president continued.
“If there is uncertainty about what happened, you can't just charge him anyway because what happened was tragic."
The question came from a University of South Carolina student – one of about 1,200 Democratic Party activists, students and youth volunteers, mostly African-Americans, who were invited to see the president at the historically black college Friday.
Benedict senior Tiana Cox, an honors student active in community service, introduced Obama, who returned to the Palmetto State for the first time since his 2008 Democratic primary victory.
Obama’s visit came on the eve of his trip to Selma, Ala., on Saturday for the anniversary of that city’s infamous violent response to civil rights protesters 50 years ago.
His visit also followed closely the U.S. Department of Justice’s release of a report saying the Ferguson police department had a culture of racism that targeted blacks.
Obama said the report exposed an “oppressive and abusive situation” in Ferguson that “systematically was biased against African-Americans in that city who were stopped, harassed, mistreated, abused, called names, fined.”
But Obama said what happened in Ferguson was not typical.
Praising law enforcement in South Carolina and elsewhere, Obama said, “The overwhelming number of law enforcement officers have a really hard, dangerous job, and they do it well and they do it fairly, and they do it heroically.
“And we need to honor those folks, and we need to respect them, and not just assume that they’ve got ill will or they’re doing a bad job.”
Mostly upbeat in his message, Obama encouraged young people to serve their communities through volunteering and activism.
“It was young people who stubbornly insisted on justice, stubbornly refused to accept the world as it is, that transformed not just the country but transformed the world,” he said of the youth who fueled the civil rights movement decades ago.
Young people should be “wildly optimistic” about their futures, he said..
“(T)oday, right now, you are more likely to be healthier, wealthier, less discriminated against, have more opportunity, less likely to be caught up in violence than probably any time in human history,” he said.
The president also touted positive news about the nation’s falling unemployment rate, released Friday.
But more work is needed, he said.
The jobless rate for African-Americans, he said, is falling faster than the overall unemployment rate, “which makes sense because it went up faster too during the recession. But it’s still too high.”
When the meeting ended, people scrambled over chairs to the center of the gymnasium for a chance to greet the president before he left.
Earlier in the day, Obama also received a warm welcome to the Palmetto State from a usually harsh critic.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democrat Obama shared an extended handshake on the Columbia Metropolitan Airport’s tarmac after Air Force One landed.
Obama mentioned the weather and his return to his wife’s home state, and Haley touted the state’s economic growth and praised the quality of its workforce, said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who greeted the president with Haley and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia.
Before heading to Benedict, the president made a stop at West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church, an influential African-American church. There, about 100 diners cheered him as he glided from table to table, shaking hands and posing for photos.
Obama appointed the daughter of Brookland Baptist’s senior pastor, the Rev. Charles Jackson Sr., as a special adviser in the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency in 2012.
One woman at the church was determined to give the president a hearty hug.
"She's hanging on, won't let go," Obama said, laughing.
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658. Reach Shain at (803) 771-8619