New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), who advocated and ultimately oversaw the removal of four monuments to Confederate figures that had been erected in prominent places in his city, will be awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May, the Kennedy Library Foundation said Tuesday.
Landrieu, 57, led a push to remove the monuments after nine members of a historic African American congregation in Charleston, S.C., were fatally shot by a white supremacist, prompting a national reckoning with Confederate imagery in the modern day.
It took two years of battles inside City Hall, the Louisiana statehouse and numerous courtrooms before the city was able to dismantle the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a monument dedicated to those who opposed Reconstruction.
Landrieu, who will leave the mayor’s office May 7 after two terms, published a book this month, “In the Shadow of Statues,” recounting the saga. He recalls another unforeseen obstacle: His administration had difficulty finding a contractor willing to remove the statues, given the potential for negative publicity.
The award — chosen by a bipartisan committee of political, business and academic leaders — is among the most prestigious in politics and is meant to identify heirs to the men whom Kennedy profiled in his 1957 book, “Profiles in Courage.” Previous winners include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for his work on overhauling campaign finance policy; former president George H.W. Bush, for agreeing to raise taxes in a successful bid to balance the federal budget; and former president Barack Obama, who won last year for “elevating the standard of political courage in a new century.”
“Mayor Landrieu turned a difficult and divisive issue into an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history and to recommit ourselves to our founding principles of equality and justice,” said Jack Schlossberg, the foundation’s president and a grandson of Kennedy. “In a year marked by continued racial injustice, in a moment of misguided national leadership and heightened division, Mayor Landrieu’s courage stands out brightly as an affirmative step in the right direction.”
In an interview Monday, Landrieu said he was flabbergasted to hear that he had been chosen for the award. “You immediately feel not worthy of standing in the same company of those individuals who have been so courageous throughout their life,” he said, adding that he was reminded of his father — former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu — and how he had opposed a segregationist governor as a young state legislator.
“People take the word ‘courage’ the wrong way,” Mitch Landrieu said. “I was afraid. There’s no question about it. I mean, there was a lot to be afraid of. But … when I really got afraid, I thought about John Lewis a lot on the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he knew he was going to get hit. And he stood there anyway.”
“It is really a joyful experience to be in a position to receive this award and accept it on behalf of all the people that have worked with me over the years and have given me the help and the support that I needed to do all of those hard things,” he continued.
Landrieu will accept the award at a ceremony on May 20 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.