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New Orleans Contemplates Its Racial Future


Martin Luther King Day had a special significance in New Orleans this year. It was a day to remember the slain Civil Rights leader, and nearly five months after Hurricane Katrina, a day for renewal and frank discussion about what kind of city New Orleans should be. From New Orleans, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

The truth is that New Orleans is a whiter city than it was just five months ago. In Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, it was mostly black neighborhoods that were devastated. Today, areas like the French Quarter uptown, and the Garden District are returning to normal. People are back, restaurants and drug stores are open. But in what were predominantly African American neighborhoods, Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Lower 9th Ward, houses long submerged in flood waters stand vacant. Former residents dispersed across the country.

Yesterday, at a Martin Luther King Day Commemoration, Mayor Ray Nagin said he believed the city's African American population would be back.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African American city. It's the way God wants it to be.

ALLEN: Nagin also said, quote, "God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane." Nagin said God was mad at the Black community for not taking care of its women and children, and at America for being in Iraq under, quote, "false pretenses." And he joked that some of his comments may lead people to think that he has post-Katrina stress syndrome.

Nagin's comments sparked an immediate uproar throughout the city. Caller after caller on talk radio blasted his comments as racist and inappropriate on a day dedicated to remembering Dr. King. Just across town, later in the day, another Martin Luther King Day commemoration was held on the campus of Tulane University. In comments to a standing room only crowd, Louisiana's Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu seemed to reference Nagin's remarks.

Lt. Governor MITCH LANDRIEU (New Orleans): It is in our darkest time, in our darkest hour, when evil will try to separate us, evil will try to separate us by race.

ALLEN: But the big attraction last night was one of New Orleans' favorite sons, celebrated jazz trumpeter, Winton Marsalis. Marsalis is part of the Mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, and today will help announce plans to revive the city's cultural community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But last night, he had another mission. He was there to enlist the gathered students in helping oversee the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Mr. WINTON MARSALIS (Jazz Musician): If you realize the unfortunate consequences of inaction, hopefully, you will understand even more the importance of holding both your elders and your peers accountable when it comes to the rebuilding of New Orleans. Stay up on the facts.

(soundbite of applause)

Mr. MARSALIS: What, other than injustice, could be the reason that the displaced citizens of New Orleans cannot be accommodated by the richest nation in the world?

(soundbite of applause)

ALLEN: Marsalis talked at length about Dr. King's legacy and a movement that he says has lost steam and been overcome by, quote, "the politics of polarity." But he was also there to play in a combo that featured his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis.

(Soundbite of piano)

ALLEN: Winton Marsalis said he believes young people can rekindle the spirit of a slumbering nation, and, he told the crowd, it's time someone woke us up. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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