By Robert Mann
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu last week (May 19) delivered one of the most honest speeches on race I’ve ever heard from a white Southern politician. I know, that’s not saying much. It’s a low bar Landrieu vaulted over. But just because so many white elected officials in the South won’t speak frankly to their constituents about race doesn’t mean what Landrieu said isn’t worthy of praise.
With his courage in presiding over removal of three Confederate statues and a white supremacist memorial — and his sensitive, spirited defense of those actions — Landrieu has not only secured his place as one of New Orleans’ more notable mayors; he also might have propelled himself into the conversation for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
If he runs, having torn down a few statues and delivered a historic speech won’t guarantee Landrieu any convention delegates. Among other things, he must overcome his mixed record on the city’s deplorable crime rate.
But just as Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable 1860 Cooper Union speech about slavery propelled the little-known Illinois lawyer toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, so might Landrieu’s Gallier Hall speech prompt Democrats to give the Louisiana mayor a closer look.
That would be a good thing. The last time the nation noted a speech by a New Orleans mayor was in 2006, when the now-imprisoned Ray Nagin demanded the return to “a chocolate New Orleans.”
I urge you to read Landrieu’s speech online to appreciate its poetry and power. What most impressed me is that, like many great leaders, Landrieu did not cast blame or condemn his political opponents.
Yet he was refreshingly honest about the city’s racial history. “New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousand of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture,” he said.
He forcefully refuted the ludicrous notion that the statues should remain because they are part of that history. “When people say to me that the monuments are history, well what I just described is real history, as well, and it is the searing truth.” That, he said, “begs the question: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks?”
Landrieu’s extensive discussion about why city leaders installed statues and monuments (“to rewrite history and hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity”) was as powerful and persuasive as anything I’ve seen on this question.
It was Landrieu’s closing passages which were most impressive and should be studied by historians and students of political rhetoric. Evoking his personal “journey on race,” Landrieu described a friend who “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 who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?”
Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.