“First statue erected to honor members of white supremacist organization who killed New Orleans’ racially integrated police force,” reads the top line of the press release from Landrieu’s office. Landrieu was even more blunt when I talked to him on Wednesday about removing Confederate memorials.
“They were put up during a very narrow point of time, four years of our formal 300-year history, as though they reflect the whole history of the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu told me. “In effect, they were put up by people, the same group of people called the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause.’ And the Lost Cause was the cause of the white supremacy in the South. Those monuments don’t reflect who we ever have been.”
“As a matter of who was Robert E Lee, he never stepped foot in the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu said, pointing out that Union soldiers actually camped at Lee Circle. “This monument was not put up to represent, to revere Robert E Lee, it was put there to represent the cause that he fought for, which in our opinion, was not what New Orleans has ever represented.”
Noting that the Lee statue is “on the most prominent space” in his city, Landrieu put the monument’s location into perspective. “It would be like putting King George where the Washington Memorial is or Robert E. Lee where Lincoln is,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s what was done in the city of New Orleans, and that’s just wrong. It’s not an appropriate historical reflection of where the people of New Orleans have ever been.”
Private funds were used to pay for the monument removals. And Landrieu is keeping the list of donors anonymous. But given the threats against the contractors. his decision is understandable. “It has been a challenge to make sure that we’re able to make sure that the people that are engaged in this are safe and that our police officers are safe as well,” he said.
Landrieu says these monuments need to be put in their “proper context.” But he hasn’t focused yet on what that might look like because of the work to remove them in the first place. “If there are some smart people around the country that revere these monuments, if they want to come forward with a plan and the money and the strategy to do that, we’ll be more than happy to talk,” Landrieu offered. He mentioned Washington and Lee University and the Jefferson Davis Society in Mississippi as possible homes for the discarded memorials. “They could put them in context. That’s different from telling the people of the city of New Orleans that they have to keep them on property owned by the people of the city of New Orleans. The people of the city of New Orleans have spoken. And now, we have a right to do with our property the way we want.”
To play devil’s advocate, I asked the Crescent City mayor what he would say to those protesters who argue that these monuments are part of their heritage. Landrieu got to the heart of the matter. “You can’t change history. Taking down a monument doesn’t change history,” he said. “Here is the truth: The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history. Denying humanity to our fellow American citizens, engaging in a Civil War that killed 600,000 people. We ought to be able to look back on that … and say, ‘You know what, the Confederacy was wrong.’ And our cities ought to reflect the values of the places that [those monuments are] in.”
New Orleans is still rebuilding after being almost completely destroyed “when the levees broke” during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We’re building the city back. We’re not building it back the way it was. We’re building it back the way it should have been if we’d gotten it right the first time,” the city’s 61st mayor told me. And then Landrieu compellingly connected the memorial removals to the overarching effort to rebuild the city.
“As a matter of growth … the city of New Orleans is small for a reason, and Atlanta and Houston are big for a reason,” he explained. “Demographic trends in the country and in the world show that people are moving back to inclusive cities. They want culture. They want diversity. They want richness. So the future of New Orleans depends on us being open, not closed. And being welcoming, not exclusive.”
“Those monuments are exclusionary, they’re not inclusionary. They’re not reflective of everybody,” he said, arguing that those memorials tell “a very, very different story” to children about their future in New Orleans. And his concern for the harm those monuments cause goes well beyond the hit to youthful self-esteem. “The attitude that maintains them is the same attitude that’s gonna cause New Orleans to die.”
That won’t happen as long Landrieu and the people of New Orleans stare down the likes of Duke and others who have taken up permanent mental residence in the 19th century. “One thing we’re not gonna do is submit to the kind of threats that people have for years made against progress,” the mayor said with his trademark candor. “We’re not gonna do that.”