Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, comes to the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to speak about his book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. In 2017, Landrieu ordered four Confederate monuments taken down from prominent places in his city. Removed were statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, along with the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which honored an 1874 attack by white paramilitary forces.
After the last statue, Lee’s, came down on May 19, Landrieu delivered a speech that has become one of the most read and best regarded speeches in generations: “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. … 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,” Landrieu said
He then emphasized: “I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.”
Because of term limits, Landrieu leaves office in May, after presiding over the city’s 300th anniversary celebration. In his book, which contains the full speech, Landrieu describes his own journey on race. He spoke to the Inquirer and Daily News by phone from New York about history, division, and how New Orleans-born jazz great Wynton Marsalis set Landrieu’s historic actions in motion.
Your book says you personally had to come a long way regarding race. What about history did you have to unlearn or relearn?
One thing I had known from the beginning: The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history. These people were not patriots; they fought to tear apart the country in defense of slavery.
But I did have to learn about why the statues were put up and who put them up.
Mostly, they are a historical lie. They do not reflect what we really are. I had to learn how unknowledgeable most of us were about them, and how we really didn’t take time to learn the truth. It took my entire life to get to where I could write that speech.
You say the statues were organized attempts at intimidation.
They were, absolutely, just like the laws against interracial marriage were, laws against blacks and whites drinking from the same water fountain, even laws against black drivers passing cars driven by whites. The Confederacy had lost the war, but all these things were a purposeful effort to reverse that result and keep blacks second-class.These statues were just another tactic linked to institutional racism. I had to learn that.
Sure, I knew ‘separate but equal’ was wrong. We all knew that. But that it was part of an invisible threat — that I had to learn.
Can you describe the moment you realized you had to do something? What brought it all to a head?
When I took over as mayor in 2010, this town had been decimated by Katrina, a bunch of other storms, and the recession. Getting out of recovery took us a long, long time. We had to rebuild the city, the airport, the infrastructure, the health-care system. It wasn’t until my second term that it came up, when we started thinking about our 300th anniversary celebration.
I was asking Wynton Marsalis about ideas, and he said to me: Sure, I’ll help, but while you’re thinking about all that other stuff, why don’t you think about taking down those statues?,
My first reaction was, ‘Why would I do that?’
And he asked: ‘Do you know why they went up? And who put them up? Do you know Louis Armstrong left this town because of them?’ So I really started to dig into the history and learned the whole story.
And then after the [June 2015] shootings at [Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church] in Charleston, South Carolina, after a year and a half of study and research, we realized we couldn’t defend these statues any more.
And how did that feel? Your subtitle calls you a white Southerner confronting history.
Do you talk the talk or do you walk the walk? I had been going around, giving speeches about rebuilding a great American city. And then something like this looms up. How can you really back away from it?
Sure, it’s scary. People will get angry and frustrated, both citizens and a lot of people who didn’t live here. We went through four very emotional public hearings, seven lawsuits; we had 13 judges opine about it.
A lot of people have remarked on the tone of your speech, considerate of your opposition without stepping back from the main point. It’s effective – and it stands out at a time when a lot of folks are yelling at each other. How did you hit on that tone?
First, we weren’t really sure we would even give a speech. But I felt the need for the historical record, to lay down a document. I also wanted to counteract a famous speech published by Charles E. Fenner when the statue of Lee went up in 1890. I wanted people to see the course correction and why it was done.
The first drafts were much harsher, much more judgmental. As we went forward, I realized that was wrong, that compassion had to be the heart of it: ‘I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us, and make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago.’
I have undying admiration and respect for Southerners, and I love this culture that I’ve grown up in. But too many of us have been on the wrong side of this racial divide. They not only lost, but we lost. Racism has forfeited so much that could have enriched us.
Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis made their great art not here, but in New York. Our oil and gas companies went to Houston. Six million people left the South and became great businesspeople and poets and artists … People ask why does the South lead in crime, cancer, death rate … We shot ourselves in the foot in not investing in our human capital. A lot of that is related to the attitudes that erected those statues.
The speech and the book – they’re not about fault. They’re about all of us taking responsibility for fixing what’s broken. They’re not even about the past: You can come to a better awareness and go forward.
What is the city like without those statues?
New Orleans is not palpably different with the empty pedestals — they’re actually an interesting art form in a way, as we think through what should go there.
We can have these statues in places of remembrance, but not places of reverence. We can have them in a museum and in context, created by historians who want to preserve the history of these things. But we have holes in our history. Where are the museums full of slave ships? The tributes to other cultures, Indian, African, South American, European, Canadian, that made us who we are, that gave us zydeco, Cajun culture, jazz, blues, gumbo?
Any plans once your mayoralty is done?
None. I have 50 days left; I’m finished on May 7. I have to land the plane, get the tricentennial launched, and say happy birthday to New Orleans, and thanks to the whole nation for helping us make New Orleans a great city.
Mitch Landrieu: 'In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History'
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 28. Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $15; Book and ticket $30. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.