[Mitch Landrieu writes about how a conversation with jazz
trumpeter Wynton Marsalis helped him confront his citys racist history
and what he did about that history.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 IN THE SHADOW OF STATUES: A WHITE SOUTHERNER CONFRONTS HISTORY  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-12/shadow-statues-white-southerner-confronts-history]


 

 Ron Briley 
 March 1, 2018
History News Network [https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/168406] 

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 _ Mitch Landrieu writes about how a conversation with jazz trumpeter
Wynton Marsalis helped him confront his city's racist history and what
he did about that history. _ 

 , 

 

In the Shadow of Statues

A White Southerner Confronts History

Mitch Landrieu

Penguin Random House

ISBN 9780525559443

On May 19, 2017, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered an address
explaining the decision of his administration to remove four
Confederate statues from city property. While the removal of the
statues generated considerable controversy within the Crescent City,
Landrieu’s eloquent speech confronting the burdens of Southern
history and providing a framework for racial conciliation received
national acclaim, leading some pundits to suggest that Landrieu seek
the Democratic nomination for President and challenge the racial
divisiveness of President Donald Trump. And Landrieu enjoys a
Louisiana pedigree that encourages such political ambitions. His
sister, Mary served as a U. S. Senator from the state, while his
father, “Moon” was also Mayor of New Orleans and fought to
desegregate the city during the 1960s. Following in the footsteps of
his family, Mitch served as a state legislator from 1988 to 2004 and
was then elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. In 2010, he won
election as Mayor of New Orleans and is now completing his second and
final term of office in that position. In chronicling the work of his
administration in rebuilding New Orleans following the devastation of
Hurricane Katrina and the corruption of former Mayor Ray Nagin,
Landrieu does come off as a politician who might be interested in
seeking higher office—and there is much to admire in the Landrieu
record. For historians, however, the real value of _In the Shadow of
Statues_ is how Landrieu expands upon the ideas of his May 2017 speech
to confront the shadow that slavery continues to cast over Southern
and American history.

Landrieu describes how even though he came from a progressive white
Southern family, he was unable to really perceive the weight of
Southern history upon black citizens until jazz musician Winston
Marsalis explained to the Mayor that he could not support a city
revitalization project until offending monuments to the Confederacy
and legacy of slavery were removed from city property. The ultimatum
from Marsalis forced Landrieu to re-examine some of his assumptions
regarding Southern history. Landrieu confessed that while growing up
in New Orleans he paid little attention to the city’s Confederate
monuments, but after talking to many of his black constituents, and
taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, the Major recognized that to
blacks the statues provided a daily reminder of how white Southerners
who fought to preserve an institution that terrorized their ancestors
were celebrated by the city. Landrieu had his staff investigate the
Confederate monuments and found that most were constructed during the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to bolster Jim Crow
segregation, while more recent Confederate memorials were erected
during the 1950s and 1960s as part of a racist resistance to the Civil
Rights Movement.

The Mayor persuasively argues that the monuments are a perversion of
Southern history and attempt to perpetuate the mythology of the Lost
Cause in which the Civil War was fought to preserve an ideal agrarian
civilization in which blacks and whites lived in harmony. Thus, the
cause of the war was not slavery but the defense of state rights
against Northern aggression. This mythology seeks to erase the
beatings, rape, labor exploitation, and separation of families that
characterized American slavery. The Confederate monuments are also
used to discredit Reconstruction in which the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Amendments to the Constitution were depicted as the “rape” of the
South by freedmen, Yankee “carpetbaggers,” and poor Southern
whites—a distortion of history also perpetrated in influential
Hollywood films such as _Birth of a Nation_ (1915) and _Gone With the
Wind_ (1939).

In addition to confronting the reality of Southern history and
challenging the mythology of the Lost Cause, Landrieu insists that the
legacy of slavery is alive and well today in the racial inequality of
a city such as New Orleans. Landrieu documents how the destruction of
Hurricane Katrina revealed the vulnerability of the black community in
New Orleans who lacked the resources to evacuate in wake of the storm.
The Mayor also deplores the violence in the black community which all
too many whites seem willing to accept, seemingly endorsing the
perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement when he asserts,
“Perhaps, as a nation, we have bought into an evil notion—that the
lives of these mostly young African American men killed everyday have
less value and thus don’t deserve our urgent attention” (150).
Fewer guns, better schools, more jobs, and a more equitable
distribution of resources are needed to address these issues, but
confronting the reality of the American past is also part of the
solution.

Thus, Landrieu believes that just as it was essential for Germans to
come to grips with the Holocaust following World War II, white
Southerners must acknowledge the connection between Confederate
monuments and the brutal institution of slavery that contributes to
contemporary racism. Landrieu insists, “The shadow these symbols
cast is oppressive. It is in this broad context, that people must now
understand that the monuments and the reasons they were erected were
intended to not affirm life but to deny life. And in that sense, the
monuments in a way are murder” (159).

The Landrieu administration targeted four Confederate memorials for
removal. The Mayor found an obelisk celebrating the 1874 uprising of a
White League militia against the legitimate Reconstruction government
to be especially unsettling, racist, and historically inaccurate.
Though beloved by many Southern whites, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson
Davis had little direction connection with New Orleans, and Landrieu
hoped that the removal of their statues might not elicit great
protest. The Mayor was more concerned with a memorial to native son
General P. G. T. Beauregard whose post-Civil War political career
encouraged racial reconciliation. Compromise and healing, however,
were not the theme of the memorial that featured a mounted general
waving a sword and leading his Confederate troops into battle in
defense of slavery. Beauregard would have to go as well, but Landrieu
laments that he underestimated the resistance to the removal of any
monuments. The Mayor and his family, along with contractors for the
removal, were confronted with death threats. Despite such vehement
opposition, Landrieu displays no regrets about his decision to
dismantle the racist symbols of the Lost Cause, concluding,
“Politics does not provide many moments for an elected official to
take a moral stand, realizing that you may well pay a political price
in doing so but you know in your heart that you’ve done something
that will make you a better human being” (199).

While the core of Landrieu’s book concentrates upon the question of
Confederate monuments, a chapter addresses the rise of David Duke in
Louisiana politics during the 1980s. Landrieu relates how he worked
with both Republicans and Democrats in the Louisiana legislature to
oppose the racially divisive agenda proposed by Duke. The former Klan
leader has praised Donald Trump for championing the rights of white
Americans, and Landrieu finds parallels between Trump and Duke,
writing, “Donald Trump is not a Nazi, yet he has courted white
nationalists as Duke did, and like Duke, he speaks and tweets a
fountain of lies, lying as naturally as normal people try to be
truthful” (82). In highlighting how he helped to foil Duke’s
agenda in the Louisiana legislature, Landrieu appears to suggest that
he might have the experience to challenge the divisive politics of
President Trump on the national stage.

Regardless of whether he decides to seek high office, Landrieu is an
articulate voice for confronting the centrality of race to the
American experience. Landrieu grew up in a prominent white Louisiana
family that challenged racial segregation in the state, yet in his
everyday life he failed to recognize the symbolic presence of New
Orleans monuments commemorating slavery and racism. It took the vision
of Winston Marsalis to open Landrieu’s eyes to the shadow cast over
his city by Confederate monuments. It is time for Southern whites to
join Landrieu in acknowledging the symbols of oppression which they
have erected on public squares and parks throughout the region.
Confronting the history of slavery should provide a platform upon
which to address the troubling legacy of racism within American
society.   

Ron Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and
HNN’s senior book editor.

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