- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - In his first trip to South Carolina since his 2008 election, President Barack Obama told a crowd at a historically black college that young adults should honor the achievements of previous activists through service and commitment to bettering themselves.

“Do not get cynical about what’s possible,” Obama told a crowd of more than 1,000 at Benedict College. “There are no excuses not to put in the effort.”

Obama spoke on the eve of a trip to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of civil rights protests there. He discussed initiatives including My Brother’s Keeper, his 1-year-old program to improve the lives of young minority men, and City Year. Several dozen participants in that AmeriCorps program sat together in their trademark red jackets.

“Ultimately I want this to be about all of you. Young people in this country in general make me optimistic,” Obama said. “I’m proud of you, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

This is Obama’s first trip to South Carolina since the 2008 primary campaign in which he and Hillary Rodham Clinton fiercely fought for the state’s black voters. Now, South Dakota and Utah are the only two states Obama hasn’t visited.

Introduced by a Benedict senior, Obama entered the college gymnasium to a standing ovation and thunderous applause.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been here in South Carolina. It’s been too long,” he said. “This is a good thing for me get out of Washington and talk to normal folks.”

After his opening remarks, Obama took questions from the audience on topics including the Keystone XL pipeline and education affordability, telling the audience that his and his wife’s student debt was at one point greater than their home mortgage.

“Let’s make community colleges free,” Obama said. “It’s very hard to find a well-paying job without some form of higher education.”

He also discussed the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision not to charge Darren Wilson, the white former Ferguson, Missouri, officer who shot Michael Brown, of federal civil rights charges in the death of the unarmed black teen, while also finding patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement and court practices in the St. Louis County suburb.

“You can’t just charge him anyway just because a situation was tragic,” Obama said. “It was an oppressive and abusive situation.”

Accompanied by Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Attorney General Eric Holder, Obama was greeted at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport by Gov. Nikki Haley and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. He also greeted and shook hands with a crowd of guests who waited an hour for Air Force One to arrive.

Before going to Benedict, Obama stopped at West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church - home to one of the state’s largest black congregations - and joined about 100 others at a buffet lunch, posing for photos and shaking hands with diners.

Also in attendance Friday were former and current state Democratic Party chairmen, state representatives, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides and Inez Tenenbaum, an attorney who served as South Carolina’s education superintendent and also chaired the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission under Obama until 2013.

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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