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Mothers of the Movement recall slain children

When the lights came up, revealing nine African American women standing in a circle, as if in prayer, delegates and guests at the Democratic National Convention broke into a chant:

Mothers of the Movement stand on stage during the second night of the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia.
Mothers of the Movement stand on stage during the second night of the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

When the lights came up, revealing nine African American women standing in a circle, as if in prayer, delegates and guests at the Democratic National Convention broke into a chant:

"Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!"

Then the crowd quieted to listen to the Mothers of the Movement, women whose children died at the hands of police or in bursts of gun violence. They were there to testify for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"She knows that when a young black life is cut short, it's not just a personal loss, it's . . . a loss that diminishes all of us," said Geneva Reed-Veal, whose daughter, Sandra Bland, was found hanged by a twisted plastic garbage back in a Texas jail in 2015.

"What a blessing tonight to be standing here so that Sandy can still speak through her momma," Reed-Veal said, choking back tears. "We have an opportunity, and we've got to seize it, to elect a president who will help lead us on the path to restoration and change."

It was perhaps the most prominent platform yet for the movement that has spurred demonstrations across the country in the past four years over the deaths of young black Americans and put pressure on the political system to deal with policing, gun violence and racial disparities in the justice system.

The mothers have been campaigning on Clinton's behalf for months. They started with intimate gatherings in small rural churches in South Carolina and traveled the country, helping to energize a crucial constituency for Clinton.

"This isn't about being politically correct," Sybrina Fulton said at the convention. "This is about saving our children." Her son, Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman, in Florida in 2012.

The emotionally powerful convention moment came in a month of mounting tension that has seen two black men killed in officer-involved shootings, in St. Paul, Minn., and Baton Rouge, La., and eight police officers assassinated.

And marchers in the streets of Philadelphia demanded justice for young men of color killed by police officers.

Hillary Clinton has been criticized by Black Lives Matter activists for her support of the 1994 crime bill signed by her husband that imposed mandatory prison sentences and is blamed for a high rate of incarceration of young black men.

"Our fight is not with the Mothers of the Movement. They have every right to speak - they need that platform to speak," said Asa Khalif of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice. He said he wished the convention had emphasized deaths as the result of police brutality, instead of including other cases of simple gun violence.

Last week, the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police slammed the DNC for failing to give the families of recently slain officers speaking time at the convention.

"It is sad that to win an election, Mrs. Clinton must pander to the interests of people who do not know all the facts, while the men and women they seek to destroy are outside protecting the political institutions of this country," union president John McNesby said in a statement.

David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist behind President Obama's election, tweeted Tuesday: "Mothers of Movement were incredibly moving, but it would have been powerful to have included widows of fallen police officers."

The goal is "to build a future" in which police officers and minority communities cooperate, said Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was fatally shot while he sat in a car in a parking lot with other black teens - by a white man who complained their music was too loud.

"The majority of police officers are good people doing a good job," McBath said.

Polls show Clinton has overwhelming support among black voters compared to Republican Donald Trump, and the mothers help reinforce those strong bonds, said Chris Borick, pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

"She needs this part of the Democratic base to be there for her in numbers at least on par with the 2012 race," Borick said. "She is relatively weaker among young black voters where the issue of police violence is highly salient, thus having 'the Mothers of the Movement' speak forcefully for her at the convention helps build an in for her with this group."

"It was an emotional speech because we all know . . . we all know about their stories, we have heard about their stories on the news," said Richard Komi, 48, a delegate from Manchester, N.H., and Clinton backer. "They have gone through a lot of pain, but the good news is that they are turning that pain into a powerful voice for sensible gun laws, for preventing racial profiling, police brutality, all the things that create disconnect between the community in general and law enforcement."

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

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@tomfitzgerald

www.philly.com/bigtent

Staff writers Claudia Vargas and Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.