New Orleans Mayor Delivers Message On Race In Monuments Speech
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Speeches by mayors talking about monuments don't usually go viral, but this one has.
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MITCH LANDRIEU: These statues are not just stone and metal. They're not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.
CORNISH: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke last Friday after the city took down the last of four Confederate monuments. General Robert E. Lee was the final one to go. It was an address about the decision, about the history of slavery in the city. It was an address about race. A week later, people are still talking about it, dissecting sections of the speech.
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LANDRIEU: This is not about a naive quest to solve all of our problems at once. This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city, that we as a people are able to acknowledge, to understand, to reconcile and, more importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.
CORNISH: We're joined now by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to talk about why this speech has struck a chord. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
LANDRIEU: Thank you so much.
CORNISH: So as we mentioned earlier, people are talking about the speech, actually sharing the full transcript on social media. But you've also been called a monster, and groups are calling on boycotts of New Orleans.
LANDRIEU: (Laughter). That's generally...
CORNISH: So I hear you laughing already. Your reaction?
LANDRIEU: (Laughter) Well, that's generally the way that happens. I mean you're a monster to some people, and then you're something else to others. That's not a surprise. Of course that's been going on in the South for a long time.
CORNISH: I want to quote a letter to the editors of the Times-Picayune, a writer, a citizen named Charles Foy of Madisonville. He says you single-handedly managed to turn innocuous city landmarks into battlegrounds and that these monuments have stood in place for many years. He goes on to say, I can guarantee you that very few people, black or white, gave them a second thought. This is not an uncommon opinion.
LANDRIEU: Well, it's a silly opinion. I mean that's the argument that says it all. Mayor, we don't know anybody that cares about these monuments. That's because we live a block away and a world apart. And you know, this story that we told was not just about the monuments. You know, the context is that New Orleans got destroyed after Katrina. We've been rebuilding our whole city. And as we built back all of our schools and all of our health clinics and all of our hospitals and all of our businesses, we began to think about our public spaces and whether those public spaces really represented who we were as a people. And those monuments stuck out on public spaces like a sore thumb.
And so I asked the people of New Orleans just to think about that, and that speech was really to the people of New Orleans. It wasn't a speech to the rest of the nation. So it's quite a surprise that the speech has gotten so much attention across the country. But this is - the issue of race is a complicated issue for the country that we have to walk through. You can't go around it. You can't go over it. You can't go under it. You have to go right through it, and it's painful.
CORNISH: Is there a particular moment when you started to think about actually taking the monuments down?
LANDRIEU: Yeah, there was a specific moment. (Laughter) I was having breakfast with Wynton Marsalis about three years ago, and he and I were thinking about what the 300th anniversary of the city would look like, which is, by the way, next year.
And I was trying to prepare the city about how to develop itself and get ready for the future. And he said, you ought to think about those monuments. And I said, you're crazy. I've walked by those monuments every day. And he said, no, I want you to really think about it. And I told him I would.
CORNISH: But it's interesting that your initial response was, you're crazy. I mean it sounds like you...
LANDRIEU: Well, because I knew - because...
CORNISH: ...You had a settled mindset about this as well.
LANDRIEU: Well, no, it's not because - I knew exactly - as soon as he said it, I knew that it was going to cause a furor. I think (laughter) that was the scared politician saying, that's going to be a - I don't want to hook that fish. You know, the vision of "The Old Man And The Sea" came into my brain right away. So I knew that it was going to be hard, you know? And of course you always want to run away from things that are hard. But you can't run away from the truth.
CORNISH: You know, obviously, as we've seen the controversy over all of this, it is a very big deal. But when you take a step back, it does also feel like low-hanging fruit. Like, when you think about the inequality in some of the parts of the country we're talking about, when you think about...
LANDRIEU: (Laughter) Wait.
CORNISH: ...All the many ways - right...
LANDRIEU: If it's such...
CORNISH: ...You could be dealing with race relations, it doesn't...
LANDRIEU: If it's such low-hanging fruit, why haven't more people done it?
CORNISH: Well, I guess that's what I'm asking. I mean it's...
LANDRIEU: Well, I don't know. I'm asking you.
CORNISH: I could use an extra school instead of, like, a flag coming down.
LANDRIEU: I said very clearly in my speech that if all we do is take down these monuments and don't change the attitude that put them up or allows them to stand without people being aware of them, then we would have done nothing.
CORNISH: Cities like Gainesville and St. Louis have had trouble finding a new home (laughter) for statues that they've decided to take down. Does New Orleans have a plan for the monuments that it has...
LANDRIEU: We're thinking about it, but it's actually an interesting question. This goes to the much more historical argument. There is a difference between remembrance and reverence. And we should clearly remember all of these things so that we never repeat it, but that doesn't mean that we should put them in places of reverence. And so the community is going to have to think about that. And they'll decide what the best thing to do with them is.
CORNISH: And in the meantime, storage?
LANDRIEU: Well, in the meantime, right now we have them secured. And we're getting ready to get into a new mayor's race and a new city council. And I have 321 days left, so the community will be thinking about all those things and hopefully come to some good decision about what to do with them.
CORNISH: You've been named a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2020. Is it something you're taking seriously?
LANDRIEU: I am not. I hadn't thought about it, and I don't intend to be a candidate. It's nice for the city of New Orleans to be recognized for the work that we've done, but that really isn't a factor in any of my thoughts that I've had about this speech or any other one that I've given.
CORNISH: Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
LANDRIEU: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.