Mitch Landrieu: A White Southerner Confronts HistoryHistorians/History
tags: New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, Confederate Monuments, JFK award, Profile in Courage
It’s New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s last day in office. I spoke with him while he was still packing up his office. We talked about why he removed statues from his city that honored the Confederacy, his new book — In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History — and of course the question many have for him: Are you running for president?
Usually we drop these conversations on Friday mornings – you know, something to look forward to since the workweek excitement is about to end.
But we’re posting this on Monday, May 7 because of my guest: It’s his last day as Mayor of New Orleans.
Did you see the speech? (You can watch it above.) It was about a year ago and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood up and explained to his city and the nation, really, why he removed four statues that honored the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee; Jefferson Davis; P.G.T. Beauregard; and the Crescent City White League.
In that speech, Landrieu took on race and inequality and history. He asked: “Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
It was a powerful 20 minutes, and if you haven’t watched it, you should.
For a mayor who had so much else to be proud of – his city: New Orleans has rebuilt itself incredibly since Katrina; and his family: his father Moon Landrieu was New Orleans mayor and HUD Secretary under Jimmy Carter; his sister was a U.S. Senator – the speech brought Landrieu into the national conversation at a time when there was a lot of yelling and not much talking.
Landrieu has written a book about the statues and race in America – it’s called “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” and it’s excellent.
I spoke with Mayor Landrieu four days before term limits meant he would give way to a new mayor. He was gracious with his time – and funny and thoughtful with his words.
I asked him about the speech, the book, New Orleans, and of course the question everyone has about him: What about that running for President thing?
Chris Riback: Mayor Landrieu, thanks so much for joining me, I appreciate your time.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: It’s great to be with you. Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: You won your first term in 2010 mayor, with 66% of the vote. You took 365 of the city’s 366 precincts. You won your second term with nearly 64%, and by all accounts you still seem to be extremely popular. Are you sure you believe in term limits?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: [laughing] Well, you know, I see it, I served for eight years as the mayor of a major American city, you come to realize that term limits are really good. It has been a great blessing to be the mayor but the responsibility is huge, but it’s time to turn the reins over to the next generation of leaders.
Chris Riback: Terrific. Let’s get right into it. Let’s talk about your book and your speech, the speech that captured so many of us when you made it, I guess about a year ago. You took on, perhaps, the single most divisive issue in our country, race, and you did it around the path that has become almost the physical representation of our divide: statues. Why’d you do it?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, you know, as I wrote in the book, which was not just about the statues, but about race in America, and how I came to live through it, I have come to the conclusion that we’re not doing well speaking about this issue towards each other and it’s holding us back. That we really have never dealt with it appropriately and, at least in New Orleans and in the Deep South, we confront this. It’s certainly not just an issue in the South, but all over the country.
As we rebuilt the city of New Orleans after it was totally devastated from Katrina, we were really forced to think about how we were going to build the city back. Not just the way it was, because Katrina and Rita didn’t cause all of our problems, but the way it should have been, if we would have gotten it right the first time. And when you asked the question that way, it forces you to go back and rethink decisions that had been made in the past that were helpful and those that were hurtful.
Of course, those statues in New Orleans, which is one of the great multicultural cities that values its diversity and has become, if not the soul of the country, very close to it, those statues stuck out like sore thumbs because they were not only symbols of hatred, but they were put up purposefully to send a message. There was really no way for the city of New Orleans to prepare itself for the next 300 years without dealing with that issue.
Of course, those statues are just pieces of stone, but what they actually represent, and so the speech was an effort to invite the people in New Orleans into a conversation about how we move past where we’ve been to where we all think we need to go.
Chris Riback: Would that opportunity have existed, in your mind, without Katrina?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: The opportunity’s with us every day, it’s just a question of whether or not we decide to do it, and unfortunately the United States of America really hasn’t. We don’t really talk to each other about race, we talk past each other. What I’ve learned is you can’t go around this, you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it. You really have to go through it, and in New Orleans we actually started that.
In 2014, we began an effort called The Welcome Table to bring different people of races, creeds, and colors into very small settings where they could get to know each other, to foster a better understanding. And it was out of that effort that about 600 people participated in, that we began to think about bigger things, like the monuments themselves.
Chris Riback: As you said, the book is not about the statues per se and it is also about race, but it’s also about your own personal journey, how you grew up, the friends you had, the things you saw or were done or said to you, like the threats against your life at age 13, visiting Auschwitz in 1979 I think it was, why was telling your personal-
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Yes, that’s correct.
Chris Riback: …And I’d love you to talk about that as well. Why was telling your personal journey integral to writing this book?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, because some people thought that I got to be mayor and I thought, “Oh gee, let’s take these statues down. That would be an interesting issue to talk about as it relates to race.” And what I was trying to point out to them was that there’s not a second in my life, from the moment of conception through today where, at some point, I personal have not had to deal with the issue, and of course that meant everybody else had to deal with it as well.
That’s why the book was really about race in America and how we deal with it, or how we don’t deal with it. How we remember our history, how we exclude other parts of our history. How we revere certain parts of it and completely forget about the rest. In other words, I was condemned pretty roundly by some people that purported to be members of “historical societies” that said I was taking away history.
And I reminded them that the city of New Orleans is actually 300 years old, the Civil War was only 4 years, and these monuments took up all of our time and all of our space, and that they were guilty of historical malfeasance by not remembering the other 296 years and all of the creativity that has gone on and diversity that’s gone on since then. And I pointed out, I think forcefully and correctly, that until recently there really were no monuments or any remembrances of some of the carnages of slavery.
Just the other day, Bryan Stevenson and his team opened up a compelling new monument in Birmingham that commemorates the lynchings, but we’ve never really remembered that appropriately either. So if we’re going to talk about it in a historical way, we have to talk about all of our history and not just some of it, and certainly not a false version of it.
Chris Riback: You know, I was surprised and taken by … You wrote that you had to relearn history yourself, and I imagine, on some level that journey must have surprised you. Your family is part of New Orleans and Louisiana history. You’ve spent most of your life there. I think you would have even, possibly viewed yourself at the least, as an amateur New Orleans historian. How’d you realize you needed to relearn history and what did that do to your sense of self?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: That’s a very good question because all of this requires intense self-reflection and discernment. One of the things I say is that I walked by those monuments every day and never thought that much about them until my friend Wynton Marsalis, who people in the world will know is the great jazz trumpet player, but he happens just to be a boyhood friend who was helping me curate the 300th anniversary, said to me, “Have you ever thought about those monuments? Do you know why they’re there? Do you know who put them up? Have you ever thought about them from our perspective?” As a friend would challenge another friend.
And when he started asking me those questions, I have to admit I never really thought about them from that perspective, and when I did, and started doing extensive research, what I found was that those things weren’t put up by accident, they were put up well after the Civil War ended by people with a specific intent, to send a message to African Americans that even though the Confederacy lost the war, that the people who were supporting the Confederacy were still in charge.
I just thought it was really important to start talking about simply what actually occurred because it seems to me that people have a difficult time saying the very simplest things that are clearly true, which is this: the Confederacy fought to destroy the United States of America, not to unite it. They fought the war in an effort to preserve slavery, and that is not right, and it was on the wrong side of history.
Those statues were put up to revere the people who actually fought that war to destroy the country. I just thought that it was important to set out the distinction between remembering what people have done throughout our history and then revering them. They’re two very different things and they occupy different places and they should be remembered in different places as well.
Chris Riback: Yeah, you make that really clear through the book and through the speech. You mentioned your friend Wynton Marsalis, and you mentioned him in the speech as well. I watched that speech again, to prepare for this conversation, and there are so many powerful parts to it. One is where you said,
Mayor Mitch Landrieu Speech Audio: “Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father, trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter, why Robert E. Lee sat atop of our city. Can you do it? Can you do it? Can you look into the eyes of this young girl and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?”
Chris Riback: And when you asked, “Can you do it?” You pointed to the audience. Who were you pointing to?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: I was pointing at everybody. You know, when you put … Here’s the thing, when you walk in another person’s shoes, you begin to see things more clearly. We can have all these theoretical arguments about who put them up, when they were put up, what they were put there for, et cetera, et cetera. But at the end of the day, when all the theory goes away, if my job as the mayor was to prepare the city for its next 300 years, who was I preparing it for? I was preparing it for the people who live here, particularly the children.
And I’m, every day, talking about creating a better future for them by encouraging them to go to school, go to college, help participate in building the new rocket to Mars that we’re building in New Orleans, encouraging these kids to go to college. But if you take that child and she’s walking past that monument, she says, “Why is that person up there still, if his whole life was designed to either keep me in chains or to send a message to me that I’m ‘less than’, how then are we living with integrity and repairing it?”
I wanted to personify this. I wanted everybody to put themselves in the shoes of a parent, explaining to the child why it was okay for that guy to be there. I think that that just put people back on their heels and said well, good. When you say it from that perspective, it gets pretty simple about what we ought to do. It clears away all the cobwebs and it gives us a pretty clear direction of which way we should go.
Chris Riback: Were you nervous to give the speech at all? Was it different? It must have been different then. You must give dozens of speeches every day, at least a couple every day, and that had to be different. Were you anxious at all?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: I wasn’t, actually. I had spent a lot of time thinking about it. Remember, I started working on this three and a half years before we took the monuments down, and of course a lot of these issues were things that had been part of my life. What I was, was certain that I wanted to give the speech. I gave it for a specific purpose which was to lay down a historical record that could be laid right next to a speech that a fellow named Charles Fenner gave in 1890, so that when people saw the historical record, I clearly explained why I did what I did and why it was necessary.
I felt very good about it. It was just a very direct talk to folks about the truth as I saw it. As a matter of fact, the name of the speech is “Truth” and in this day and age, talking and speaking the truth and relying on real facts and real history I thought was needed in order for the history books to record the actions of a mayor that is part of what I would I consider to be a continuous government that’s 300 years old, so that the records will reflect why we did what we did.
Chris Riback: I know that your concern, your focus is not just on racism and issues in New Orleans. Obviously, that’s the central while you’re the mayor of New Orleans but you’ve thought about, and you write about race in America, broadly, and you’ve been quite public, and you write about President Trump in your book. You associate I believe, you correct me if I have it wrong, a rise in white supremacy in this country with President Trump. Why do you say that, and what would you say to him? I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk with him. Have you ever spoken with him?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Yes, I have. Not in long conversations but I wouldn’t couch it that way, and I don’t mean to correct you, but I want to put this in perfect context.
Chris Riback: Thank you.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: I rarely mention President Trump in the book. I do a couple of times, not as the cause of any of this, but a participant in what I consider to be a very dangerous thing that’s going on, that he is either unwittingly participated in, encouraged or has refused to disavow, although recently he has done that. And that is the cause of white supremacy. There’s no question that all across the world, that this notion that whites are superior intellectually and genetically to other people, has led us into very dangerous territory, or that any group of people are superior to others.
We’ve had apartheid in South Africa, we had the tremendous atrocities in Germany. In the United States of America we have had slavery. All of those things are borne out of a sense of racial hatred or superiority that people have of others, and there has been a rise recently, across the world, which has also manifested itself in the United States.
When that happens, which is why I tell the story of Auschwitz, there’s only one thing that people can do, is stand up and say, “Look. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t matter you’re conservative or a moderate or a liberal. There’s a lot of room for us to disagree on a lot of things, but not on the cause of whether one group of human beings is superior to another, and that we have a right to oppress them.”
Slavery was an awful thing for this country, we’re still paying dividends for it. When that raises its head in the face of, or the mouth of David Duke or anybody else, that could potentially result in the kind of things that happened in Charlottesville, everybody’s got to stand up and say that’s out of bounds.
I called the President to task briefly in the book for false equivocation between protesters or acting like he didn’t know who David Duke was, and not just specifically saying, “Do not vote for me if you believe what white supremacists believe.”
Chris Riback: I wanted to ask you about religion as well. You went to Jesuit high school, Catholic university. You got your JD from Loyola University Law School in New Orleans. How has religion … I’m assuming, based on that, you please again, please correct me if I have it wrong, that religion surely plays an influential part of your life is my belief from your background.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, you correctly point out that I was raised in the Catholic faith and I am a Catholic by choice as well. I went to Jesuit high school and Catholic university, Loyola Law School. I readily admit that I’m not very good at it, and that I make a lot of mistakes in my life so I’m not trying to preach to anybody about anything. But when you are raised that way, you have a pretty good reservoir of direction that you try to take in your life, and you try to rely on your faith to help keep you steady in good times and in bad.
Chris Riback: Understood. Let any of us, how we’re living our own lives, be the first to cast any stones, that’s for sure. Most us, just trying to do the best we can. To close out, and you understand, I just want to be helpful here. You may not have noticed mayor, and I have no other motivations. The last few Democratic Presidents, Clinton, Carter, LBJ, not Obama of course, came from the South. I, personally find that very interesting, and given that I’m talking with you today, I’m not asking you anything about yourself, you know that, I’m just wondering if you find that interesting also?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: [laughing] Well, of course it is, and it’s a noticeable thing. I think all of those guys did a great job.
Chris Riback: That’s the shortest answer I’ve ever heard you give. How do you feel about people asking you about that, about whether you may run. And I know … it’s meant in a positive way.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Yes, it’s very flattering, there’s no question about it. It would be disingenuous and a lie to say it’s not. I’ve been serving in office now for 30 years. I’ve served as a legislator for 16, lieutenant governor after 6, and the mayor after 8, and so you want to finish with people thinking well about the work that you did and the sacrifice that you made. And so, of course it makes you feel good.
Secondly, it makes me really proud because when people say that, they’re not just saying a good thing about me, they’re saying a good thing about the people of the city of New Orleans, who I think did miraculous work after Katrina, to stand our city back up. But it gets to be a horse race and people surmise about what other people are going to do. That’s always a very interesting conversation, but I have really been focused on getting the city through the eight years of recovery and rebuilding, and then finally just celebrating our 300th anniversary.
What the future holds, who knows. I think that’s unlikely. It’s not impossible, but what the heck, I don’t know what the future holds for me, but my sense is that it’s unlikely that that’s going to happen.
Chris Riback: Well there’s one day in the near future that you do know about, and to close out, I may publish this conversation on May 7th. What will that day be like for you?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: You know, it’s interesting because as we tape this, we’re a couple days away from it, and I’m cleaning out my office as we speak and I’m also working full time so I don’t really have a lot of time to focus. But my guess is that at 12:00 on the 7th, it’s going to be very bittersweet. There’ll be a huge sense of relief that the responsibility that’s so heavy, that you have to bear by yourself sometimes, has been lifted from your shoulders, but there’ll also be some sadness that you’re not at the helm anymore or in a position of, as a mayor of pretty extreme power to pull people together and to lift other people’s lives up and so I don’t know what I’m going to do in my future, but it’ll do something, hopefully, God willing, that helps other people, whether it’s in my private life or in a public life. That’s been the most gratifying part of serving the public for 30 years.
Chris Riback: Mayor, thank you. Thank you for your time and obviously, thank you for your service as well.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, great. Thank you so much for your interview. I enjoyed it.