Interviews

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu Talks Social Justice, Confederate Statues, and the Way Forward

Last week, Hyperallergic sat down with former mayor Mitch Landrieu to talk about the lessons he had learned in the process of removing Confederate monuments from New Orleans.

Mitch Landrieu at the Brooklyn Public Library delivering the 2018 Kahn Humanities Lecture (all images courtesy of Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Pubic Library)

“[Confederate] monuments were put up as a political message … that you who don’t look like me are less than me.” So said Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who left office in early May, during a speech given at the Brooklyn Public Library last week. Landrieu was undoubtedly invited to give this address because he has earned a reputation as one of the few white elected officials from the South who is willing to speak the truth about the ways in which white supremacy is woven into our social fabric. Landrieu has recognized that this pernicious ideology is rendered symbolically in monuments of soldiers and principals of the Confederacy. More, he is one of the few political leaders who has made definitive attempts to confront this circumstance by ensuring that these symbols do not continue to cause harm. Last year, he led the city council in successfully taking down four monuments publicly displayed in the city. As he clarified during his Brooklyn speech, those statues erected to honor soldiers and principals of the Confederacy conveyed to the 64% of city residents, who are black, that “You are worthless, and we still control this place.”

Before his speech, I sat down with former mayor Landrieu to talk about what lessons he had learned in the process of removing those monuments. Given his experience I thought that he would have insights on what it’s like to confront deep-rooted fear and loathing of social change, among his constituents and even his own personal friends. Throughout our conversation he struck me as a thoughtful, feeling political agent committed to social justice who has weathered battles over the symbolic legacy of the South with his convictions not bruised and battered, but galvanized by the fight.

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The audience at the BPL for Mitch Landrieu’s lecture

Seph Rodney: Because you have been one of the pivotal figures in the conversation we’re having around Confederate monuments in the South, I want to know, given your experience with just getting rid of some, what you’ve learned from that process.

Mitch Landrieu: The conversation about the monuments is a much larger conversation than just the statues themselves. It really is a conversation about race, and ability or willingness or competence to even address it, how to speak about it and how to get to a better place than where we are today.

What I learned that is most poignant, is how hard it is for people to address even the clearest truths that have been with us for a long time [that] people have walked by — and their unwillingness to confront them. They think somehow, that makes them responsible for everything that’s happened in the past. The lack of understanding that — until you do that — we really can’t go forward, that has been the most insightful thing that I’ve learned.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that some people don’t view these statues in any way but neutral, as though they were a piece of history. They were there, they didn’t really mean anything to them except that they had been there for a long time, so [they] just don’t want to change them.

SR: When you say “the truth,” what is that? Can you encapsulate that truth for me in a couple of sentences?

ML: As it relates to the specific issue of the Confederacy in the Civil War, just to be able to say that the Civil War was fought to destroy the United States of America not to unite it. It was clearly fought over the cause of slavery and economics, and the Confederacy was on the wrong side of history. Just those simple truths, some people have a very hard time just articulating, and to me that’s really problematic because that’s not something that we should be debating anymore.

SR: When you say that it’s relatively impossible to move forward unless we publicly acknowledge these truths, what does forward look like?

ML: Well first of all let me say this, this is not much different from things that happen in our personal lives. When you do something that offends somebody else, before you move forward, you have to acknowledge the wrong, say, “I’m sorry,” and then the receiving party has to say, “I forgive you.”

I don’t know that we know what forward looks like. I think we have a number of different examples. We had the atrocities in Germany, we had apartheid in South Africa. The first thing we have to acknowledge, is that what was happened in the past was wrong. Slavery was wrong, it was the nations great original sin, it caused catastrophic consequences that are with us today. We have to acknowledge that.

Then as we see today, with the tweet from Roseanne Barr, and ABC canceling her show, [and] what Starbucks is doing as we speak, shutting down all of their stores to retrain all of their employees. We have to recognize that we still are blind in many ways on the issue of race and we haven’t really learned how to talk about it. We can’t do it unless we acknowledge other people’s pain, and people are able to ask questions of each other in a safe space, but you can’t do that if there’s no recognition, that there was a problem.

I just thought it was really important as the mayor of the city that historically sold more people into slavery, to articulate that in fact that the continuous government that I was the head of actually did that wrong thing and acknowledge that.

Another view of the audience at the BPL

SR: One could say then, that the action that you took of removing the confederate statues actually was an opportunity, in a way, to get to these truths.

ML: In truth, it was used as an opportunity to teach people a pathway forward. We were preparing the city for the 300th anniversary. I was trying to lead this city forward by saying, “We’re not building this city back the way it was, before Katrina destroyed us. We’re building it the way it should have always been, had we got it right the first time.” Now that means you’ve got to go back and [ask], where were the errors, what do we have do to course correct?

It was an invitation for people to see the world in a different way; it wasn’t a condemnation. A lot of people have taken the invitation to say, what does it mean to have a city that represents all of us, not just some? What does it mean not to just remember four years of our history, but 300 years of our history? What does it mean that diversity is a strength not a weakness?

We have to pick a pathway as a country. It seems to me that right now, the country through our political process has elected somebody that is annunciating, “We want to go back to where we were.” I don’t want to go back to where we were, because I don’t think that we were better than we are today.

Mitch Landrieu during a post-lecture conversation with Rob Fields, president and executive director of Weeksville Heritage Center

SR: If there were something that you could give to other mayors, other civic and political leaders around the country, [that] this is what came out of this [process] which will be beneficial for your constituents, for your metropolis, for your communities, what would that thing be?

ML: Well, the fact that they’re down, is the truth. The fact that they actually came down, it was critically important that they come down because they were in the way. There’s no other way to interpret a statue that’s on a public piece of land that was in a space of reverence. That’s completely different from being on private property or being in a museum.

I’m noticing your shirt [that says] National Museum of African American History and Culture. In that museum, there is a block on which (and President Obama spoke about this at the opening) on which two people who were running for president stood and gave speeches about their presidency and the only thing that was ever recorded about that block, was that those two men — who were white, who were running for president — stood on it and gave speeches about it. When in essence that block was the block on which tons of African American men and women were sold into slavery.

Now [the] same block, same physical thing, now it’s in the African American museum and now it takes on a different context. One is a much richer, better story and one that we can all embalm ourselves in. The other one was just a story about politics.

When my opponents — who accused me of robbing history — hear me respond that, “No, you actually are the ones guilty of historical malfeasance, because you didn’t tell the whole truth. You only told a piece of the truth, a little bit, not all of who we are. You excluded 296 years of history. Who is the one that’s robbing us of our history?

I think we’re on the right side of history, we’re clearly on the right side of the law, and in terms of what America is always promised to be. We took a step forward and not back. The fact that they came down is the most important part of it, because you can get it done.

SR: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time, I appreciate it.

ML: It’s great to see you.

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