Southern discomfort and the removal of confederate statues

Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu has no regrets about his initiative

 Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu: “Plenty of gas left in the tank,” he says. Photograph:  Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu: “Plenty of gas left in the tank,” he says. Photograph: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

 

Mitch Landrieu remembers the moment when he realised the gravity of what he was about to do. “Here I was, mayor of a major American city in the midst of a building boom like no other, filled with million-dollar construction jobs , and I couldn’t find anyone who would rent me a crane. Are you kidding me?” he writes in his book In the Shadow of Statues.

The mayor of New Orleans was implementing a proposal that had been endorsed by the city council – the removal of four confederate statues. But it soon became apparent that finding a contractor to take them down would be difficult. Businesses backed away, following threats and a backlash on social media. One contractor who decided to participate had his car firebombed.

The controversy over their removal presaged what was to unfold in Charlottesville a few months later, when neo-Nazi riots led to the death of a young woman

Eventually, the city found a contractor who agreed to remove the statues under heavy security – but not before the crane’s gas tank was filled with sand in a last minute attempt to sabotage the move.

New Orleans’s decision to remove four confederate statues last year thrust the city – and its mayor – into the national spotlight. The controversy over their removal presaged what was to unfold in Charlottesville a few months later, when neo-Nazi riots led to the death of a young woman.

Now, 17 months later, Landrieu is convinced that it was the right thing to do. Speaking at the Texas Tribune festival last weekend, he again set out the reason for this decision. The confederate statues that were constructed across the South after the civil war – often decades after the war finished – present a “false narrative of our history”, he says. “They were part of an effort to hide the truth.”

He rejects the Southern argument that the war was fought for states’ rights. Rather it was at its heart about the rights and wrongs of slavery, with the Confederacy on the losing side. Removing the statues was about “telling the truth about the past”.

Confronting legacy

In particular, it was important to confront the legacy of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, he says – the city was the centre of the US slave market. “More humans were sold into slavery in New Orleans than anywhere else in the country,” he writes in his book.

Landrieu also believes that, as a white mayor in his second term, he had an opportunity to confront the issue, something that would prove more difficult for any future African-American mayor who could be drawn into contemporary debates about race.

Landrieu’s own views on race are deeply affected by his childhood. The fifth of nine children, his father, Moon Landrieu, was the mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s. He spearheaded efforts to remove the confederate flag from city council buildings, and faced a backlash from constituents when he tried to increase access to public contracts and government jobs for African-Americans.

Landrieu himself recalls noticing on his first day of second grade that a girl he knew was no longer in class. Her parents had moved her to a different school when the Catholic school began admitting black students. The concept of “white flight” – where white families moved to the suburbs – began in the years following the Civil Rights movement, and shaped the demographics of American cities including New Orleans.

Pessimism

Speaking on the fringes of the festival last week, we talk about today’s politics. Like many, Landrieu is pessimistic about the current administration. “In America right now . . . we are having a discussion about ideas that we thought were settled. This notion of autocracy, the notion of white supremacy, this notion of nationalism, that used to live on the fringes is creeping back into our civic discussion.”

He agrees with former president Barack Obama that Donald Trump is not the cause of this, though in his book he compares Trump to David Duke, the controversial Ku Klux Klan member whom Landrieu served alongside in the Louisiana legislature.

Landrieu’s national profile has sparked speculation he might run for president. Obama, in particular, is said to rate him highly, and a Southern Democrat may be exactly what Democrats need. Landrieu rules it out for 2020: “I’m not running,” he says.

He suggests that Joe Biden could be the Democratic candidate. “I think voters are looking for a person with great experience, that can restore America’s dignity across the world immediately and he’s the person who can actually pull together diverse parts of the country.”

As for his own political future, he rules nothing out. “There’s plenty of gas left in the tank,” he says with a smile.

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