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'We Cannot Be Afraid Of The Truth': New Orleans Mayor On Confederate Statues


Late last April, in the early-morning darkness, a construction crew rolled up to the Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans. The workers dismantle it, loaded it onto a truck and carted it away. The scene would play out three more times over the next few weeks. Three more statues came down from their pedestals. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu marked the occasion.


MITCH LANDRIEU: There is a difference you see between remembrance of history and the reverence of it. For America, New Orleans, it has been a long and winding road marked by tragedy and triumph. But we cannot be afraid of the truth.

MARTIN: Sometimes quietly, sometimes with anger and even violence, cities around the country have been grappling with that truth, a truth embedded in the question of what to do with symbols that are still defended by some as reverence for courageous ancestors but are now understood by many others as political statements about white supremacy that no longer have a place in the public square. Mayor Landrieu's front-row seat in that debate is the subject of his new book, "In The Shadow Of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History." And Mayor Mitch Landrieu joins us now from New York. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LANDRIEU: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: You know, the country has been well-acquainted now with some of the drama around removing these statues after that neo-Nazi, white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that, you know, very sadly resulted in death and many injuries. But New Orleans started before this, and your book - it's ostensibly about the statues, but the subtitle really says it all. Like, a white Southerner confronts history. I mean, the book is really about that grappling with history. And you call it the cult of the lost cause. I think the question for a lot of people - why is there such a fixation on this particular cause? Can you help people understand it?

LANDRIEU: Sure. Well, first of all, everybody comes to this issue from where they actually come from - where they live, who their family is, what the history is. The cult of the lost cause are not my words. Those are actually the words of the individuals that put the monuments up to basically send a signal to the rest of the country that the Confederacy may have lost the war, but the cause was an honorable and noble cause. And I, as a white Southerner, wanted to say this clearly that I recognize that the Civil War intended to destroy the United States of America, not to unite it. And it was specifically fought to preserve the institution of slavery. And for some reason, people are having a hard time - some people - just acknowledging that that is true, as though somehow that condemns their ancestors that fought in the war. I'm not here to condemn anybody. I am here to help heal a wounded nation.

MARTIN: It would help me if we could talk a little bit about you because you talk in the book a lot about your family. Your dad was the mayor. You know, your family's been in public life. Many people remember, you know, your sister was the United States senator from Louisiana. But you grew up in a really interesting way. I mean, you may - I don't know. I'm trying to think of...

LANDRIEU: Yeah, I could talk a little bit about it.


LANDRIEU: First of all, I'm one of nine children. I'm the fifth. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood. There's not a moment in my life that I can't remember race or the awareness of it not being there. In the book, I write about the fact that when I was in utero, my father was a young legislator, and he was one of two white Southerners that voted against the segregation package. And his life was threatened.

And then I jump forward to when I was 13 years old when my father, later on, was mayor of the city of New Orleans - after having taken down the Confederate flag, by the way, in the 1960s from the council chamber. And that a white woman came to the high school that I was at and confronted me and, you know, basically said that my father was an n-lover, and that the reason why I was the way it was was because I was really black and that my father ruined the city because he let black people in it. Well, when a woman - an older woman - is yelling at a 13-year-old, it's very confusing.

And so I tell those stories to just kind of make the point that this really isn't about public policy - although it is in some ways - that it's about the way we personally experience each other and how confused people can be about this very issue.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I want to end up where we started, which is the monuments. How did it - how did you feel when you finally saw them go?

LANDRIEU: I felt very relieved. And I was very proud because when I talked to some of my dear friends - Terence Blanchard, for example - great jazz trumpeter, African-American, who told me, you know, when I started doing this that he had to walk by the P.G.T. Beauregard Monument every day when he was going to John F. Kennedy's School, and he felt less than everyday. He said to me he felt that the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. And I was just really proud that New Orleans holds itself out as a wonderful place. We have rebuilt a broken city. There are a lot of lessons that we've learned through our agony, through the resurrection and redemption of a great city. But essentially, what the secret sauce is is that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. And if we can see each other, and hear each other, and touch each other and see the value in each other, we're all going to be better.

MARTIN: That's Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans. His book, "In The Shadow Of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History" is out this Tuesday. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LANDRIEU: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.