With the weight of history bearing down on his shoulders, a resolute calm in his gaze and a slight tremble in his voice that spoke not of nervousness but of a deep awareness that the words he was about to speak would be recited by generations to come, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stepped to the microphone last Friday and gave the speech of a lifetime.
Watch Landrieu’s full speech and read the transcript below.
I thank you all for coming today.
The soul of our beloved city is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way—through good and through bad. It is a history, our history, that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans —the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha, Hernando De Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Colorix [sic], the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the South and Central Americans, the Vietnamese and so many more.
You see, New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum—out of many we are one. But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront.
New Orleans was one of America’s largest slave market[s], a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, and of torture. America was a place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow American citizens were lynched, 540 in Louisiana alone; where our courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well, what I just described to you is our history as well, and it is the searing truth.
And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives of pain, of sacrifice, of shame, all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference, you see, between remembrance of history and reverence of it.
For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of the truth. As President George W. Bush said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and it corrects them.” So today, I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding each other.
So, let’s start with the facts.
The historic record is clear, Robert E. Lee, [Jefferson] Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as “The Cult of the Lost Cause.” This cult had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America; they fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.
And after the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
A piece of stone—one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today ... for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights ... I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.
I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend 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 why Robert E. Lee sat atop of our city.
Can you do it? Can you do it? Can you look into the eyes of this young girl and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus. This is the moment when we know what we must do—when we know what is right. We can’t walk away from this truth.
Now I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like. So relocating these [Confederate] monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame; it’s not about retaliation. This is not a naive quest to solve all 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 most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and, yeah, violence.
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places in honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost—and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans—or anyone else for that matter—to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse; it seems absurd. Centuries-old wounds are still raw because, you see, they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth: We are better together than we are apart.
Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that, we, the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz; it is the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages—and from different cultures. Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffuletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, think about red beans and rice. By God, just think. All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one—and better for it. Out of many we are one—and we really do love it! And yet, we still seem to find so many excuses for not doing the right thing. Again, remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
We forget, we deny how much we really depend on each other, how much we really need each other. We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial. We still find a way to say, “Wait, wait, wait, not so fast.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Wait has almost always meant never.” We can’t wait any longer. We need to change. And we need to change now. No more waiting.
This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society, then all of this would have all been in vain. While some have driven by these monuments every day and either revered their beauty or failed to see them at all, many of our neighbors and fellow Americans see them very clearly. Many are painfully aware of the long shadows their presence casts; not only literally but figuratively. And they clearly receive the message that the Confederacy and the cult of the lost cause intended to deliver.
Earlier this week, as the cult of the lost cause statue of P.G.T Beauregard came down, world renowned musician Terence Blanchard stood watch, his wife, Robin, and their two beautiful daughters at their side. Terence went to school on the edge of City Park named after one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots, John F. Kennedy. But to get there, he had to pass by the monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.
He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride ... it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.”
Yes, Terence, it is and it is long overdue.
Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians, a message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans, and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this city we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.
We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves—at this point in our history—after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe, after the tornado—if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces ... would these [...] monuments be what we want the world to see?
Is this really our story?
We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That is what really makes America great, and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all ... not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in ... all of the way. It is in this union, it is in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes. Instead of revering a four-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy, we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.
After decades of public debate, of anger, of anxiety, of anticipation, of humiliation and of frustration. After public hearings and approvals from three separate community-led commissions. After two robust public hearings and a 6-1 vote by the duly elected New Orleans City Council. After review by 13 different federal and state judges. The full weight of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government has been brought to bear and the monuments in accordance with the law have been removed. So now is the time to come together and heal and focus on our larger task. Not only building new symbols, but making this city a beautiful manifestation of what is possible and what we as a people can become.
Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and universally loved, now, Nelson Mandela and what he said after the fall of apartheid: “If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.”
So before we part, let us again state the truth clearly. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never, ever again put on a pedestal to be revered. As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.
Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today across the ages to unite as one people when he said: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish—a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
God bless you all. God bless New Orleans. And God bless the United States of America.