Update 8/17: In light of the ongoing debate sparked by the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, the violence that ensued over the weekend and President Trump’s tweetstorm Thursday morning arguing against removing these statues, I am re-posting a piece I wrote back in May that details the remarkable speech New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave by way of explaining his decision to remove statues honoring the confederacy. The original post is below.
Mitch Landrieu isn’t a name you’ve likely heard before.
Landrieu, the scion of a famous New Orleans political family, is the mayor of that fabled city. And, five days ago, he gave a remarkably compelling speech about race in America that you need to pay attention to.
The occasion was the removal of the last of four statues in the city honoring Confederate generals and soldiers. Removing the statues had been years in the making – ever since the New Orleans City Council approved a measure doing just that in 2015.
But the decision had been caught up in significant legal wrangling; as recently as last week, the Republican-controlled state House passed a measures seeking to block the removals.
Even as the final statue – of Robert E. Lee – was being removed just blocks from where he was speaking, Landrieu delivered a stunningly eloquent defense of the decision that, even if you disagree, is very much worth your time. It’s both a reminder of Faulkner’s famous warning about the past (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) and a call to unify behind a shared future.
For Landrieu, the speech came somewhat out of nowhere. He spent six years in the 2000s as the state’s relatively unknown lieutenant governor – regularly overshadowed by his sister, Mary, who was a US Senator at the time. He was elected as mayor of New Orleans – a job his father, Moon, held for eight years in the 1970s – and re-elected in 2014.
With the exception of a 2011 “60 Minutes” piece focused on his efforts to remake his hometown, there hasn’t been much to talk about when it came to Landrieu. That’s why so many people – me included – were stunned when his name was mentioned by the New York Times in a piece on the 2020 Democratic presidential field.
After reading this speech, I’m less surprised. (Potential 2020’er Cory Booker called it a “profound and important speech.”) The full text, which you really should read, is here. I went through the speech and picked out the 12 lines that stood out most to me. They’re below (in the order Landrieu said them).
1. “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
2. “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
3. “They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. “
4. “So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.”
5. “I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like.”
6. “This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.”
7. “It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done.”
8. “Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.”
9. “If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain.”
10. “We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations.”
11.”Instead of revering a four-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.”
12. “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”