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Presenter at ‘America Healing’ conference takes on elephant in the room

A makeshift memorial for TrayvMartis displayed Thursday April 12 2012 sidewalk outside complex where Martwas shot dead by neighborhood watch

A makeshift memorial for Trayvon Martin is displayed Thursday, April 12, 2012, on the sidewalk outside the complex where Martin was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old and is expected in court Thursday. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

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Updated: January 17, 2013 10:44AM

NEW ORLEANS — As the man at the reins of a city that will forever be remembered as much for a national disaster as it will be for its honored place in the world of jazz, it was Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu’s duty to welcome participants of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “America Healing for Democracy” conference to the storied French Quarter.

The four-day event brought together more than 400 grantees, community leaders and funders to tackle the explosive issue of racism in America.

Coming on the heels of the protests that kept the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida at the forefront of public discourse — ultimately leading to the arrest of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder — this year’s conference seemed destined to be more relevant than when it was first convened in 2011.

But like many others living with the horror of black-on-black violence, Landrieu asked this audience a question that has haunted me for months: “When we talk about racial healing — trying to find a way out — is it that we get upset about the injustice or the loss of life?” he asked.

“The answer is really not clear,” Landrieu ventured.

Landrieu pointed out that while everyone in the room knew Trayvon’s name, hundreds of black men in cities across America are being killed, and no one outside of their families and police ever get to know those names.

The mayor put three large binders on the podium, which he said contained information on every victim killed since 1979 in his city — an average of 243 homicides a year.

“If you add this up, that’s a lot of people killed on the streets of New Orleans,” Landrieu said.

“People are killed tragically, left to lay in cold pools of blood on hard streets, primarily left alone by themselves, and nobody knows their names.

“The lives of young black men are really important. They are sacred, and they need to be protected, and their lives are worth fighting for. We have to figure this out. We have to fight in order to save their lives,” the mayor said.

Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was in the audience. The civil rights organization at the forefront of protests leading up to Zimmerman’s arrest has often been lobbied by black commentators to pay as much attention to the senseless loss of black life on urban streets as it does to incidents involving race.

“I intend to talk to the mayor about his campaign, but we will be talking about the related issues of racial profiling and homicide cases not being solved,” Jealous told me. “The Trayvon case struck a chord because his family came out quickly, because the photographs of Trayvon reminded people of the beautiful and promising young boys in their lives, and because it spoke to multiple injustices in our society.”

But even at a conference devoted to exploring strategies for combatting racial intolerance, the carnage in many black and brown neighborhoods remained the elephant in the room.

At the end of a documentary on the life of civil rights activist, singer and actor Harry Belafonte, “Sing Your Song,” which was screened for audiences here, Belafonte is shown addressing the street violence issue: “The last thing I thought is that I would be spending the last years of my life still looking to fix those things I thought was fixed 50 years ago,” Belafonte said in the movie.

As Landrieu pointed out, the mass murder of young black males is “unnatural.”

“When that many important things are taken from you every day and you say nothing, it is like they do not matter,” he said.

Someone had to say it.

For black people, racial healing must begin at home.

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