Here’s something I’m not sure I’ve ever heard myself say, at least until about 10 days ago: I’m with Mitt.
That’s former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, of course, who came out of retirement after the racially motivated murders at a historically black Charleston church to basically challenge politicians who either supported flying the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol — or who tried to sidestep the thorny issue even after the shocking shootings.
“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol,” Romney wrote on Twitter. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”
That was it. Straight and to the point. If it makes your fellow citizens feel as if their government is endorsing injustice and oppression, that it’s honoring a worldview that sees some as less than fully equal, then that’s enough. Take it down. End of discussion.
Others concurred, of course, including the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, but nobody stated the moral case more simply and clearly than Romney did.
By extension, I’d have to say that I’m with Mitch, as well. That would be New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who seized on the national discussion to propose that the city replace several highly visible monuments honoring Confederate heroes and, in one case, white supremacists. Landrieu proposed replacing the statues with symbols that everyone in the majority African-American city can endorse.
Landrieu’s got a pedigree on these issues; his father, Moon, recently talked to WDSU about his own efforts as a New Orleans city councilman to remove the Confederate flag from the council chambers back in 1969, before he desegregated City Hall during his two terms as mayor. “We didn’t see any reason to perpetuate a cause that was lost and a cause that was not justified to start with, which was the perpetuation of slavery,” Moon Landrieu said.
But even Mitch Landrieu admitted that he had long traveled the city’s streets without giving the statues that line them much thought. It took a conversation with jazz trumpeter and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis to open his eyes.
“He said, ‘I don’t like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle.’ And I said ‘Why?’ ” Landrieu said. Marsalis pointed out the role that Lee played in the Confederacy and asked the mayor to consider whether that reflected the city.
“And I’m ashamed to tell you that I had never thought about it before,” Landrieu said. “I have either walked by or run by or drove by that piece of real estate my entire life, and so he got in my head ... and he made me start thinking about it.”
Also in his head even before the Charleston tragedy, apparently, were the conversations on racial reconciliation that were occurring as part of the city’s “Welcome Table New Orleans” project. Participants in the effort unveiled a series of proposed projects to help heal racial strife last week.
Landrieu specifically mentioned three statues: the Robert E. Lee monument at the circle that bears his name and structures honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Then there’s the monument to the Crescent City White League near the foot of Canal Street, which has been the subject of protests over the years and which should be the lowest-hanging fruit.
Landrieu seems to have support from key City Council members, and nobody much has complained as of yet.
There’s a can of worms aspect to the endeavor, of course. It’s one thing to remove statues, but what about changing major street names or monuments to other major figures with serious blemishes on their records? Where should the city draw the line? And what about the rest of the state, where Confederate remembrances are plentiful and where the politics are considerably less progressive?
And it’s not at all clear how many residents of any race view the statue of the Confederate general the way they’d view the flag that may soon be removed from South Carolina’s capitol grounds. Or how many don’t think about it all, the way that the mayor admits he didn’t. Or how many would be happier if he’d just fix some potholes on their streets, or see this sort of discussion as a distraction from the intractable problems of violence and poverty.
But certainly Marsalis isn’t the only one who’s pained by the sight of a monument to a deeply offensive cause, who feels like the statue’s very presence is a sign of disrespect and who doesn’t think it reflects what the New Orleans of today is all about.
That’s reason enough for Landrieu to do something, just like it was reason enough for Romney. It should be reason enough for all of us.