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Book cover of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's book A White Southerner Confronts History.

Hand Out Photo

Its title aside, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s first book is not primarily about his decision to take down New Orleans' most prominent Jim Crow-era monuments.

The book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” instead uses the monuments to frame a discussion of racism in American politics and Landrieu's own efforts to reckon with it. 

Published Tuesday, it makes the case that President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are still using race-based appeals inherited from figures like David Duke, recalling Landrieu's verbal sparring matches with the former Ku Klux Klan leader when they were both state lawmakers. 

“Race is the great dividing wedge used by what was once the party of Lincoln to attract working-class whites and country-club conservatives who otherwise share few economic interests with each other but are united against the interests of African-Americans,” Landrieu writes.

The mayor has never shied away from criticism of Trump, either as leader of New Orleans or as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In the book, he explicitly draws out the parallels between Trump and Duke, suggesting the Republican Party’s support of Trump was a “deal with the devil where morals, personal responsibility or principles are secondary to election wins."

Trump's slogan “Make America Great Again" carries "a coded mantra: make America white again,” Landrieu writes. “David Duke crowed to that fiddle more than any politician I ever encountered until I watched the rise of Trump. He plays on fear of the other, on us versus them, which frankly I thought was done after we sent David Duke packing.”

The book’s publication has renewed national interest in Landrieu, putting him once more in the spotlight he enjoyed during the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015 and again last year, when his speech on the same day the city's Robert E. Lee statue was taken down earned him plaudits.

But he has repeatedly denied any plans to run for president, as he did again in an interview Monday. “I don’t have any intention of running for president,” he said.

As for his plans after he leaves the mayor’s office in May, Landrieu said, “I’m going to take some time and think about what’s next, but I haven’t made any decisions yet.”

Yet the book reads as something that has become a rite of passage for potential presidential candidates: a CliffsNotes version of his life, his career and his views on national politics. 

In the acknowledgements, Landrieu thanks investigative reporter Jason Berry, speechwriter Sam Joel and former Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni for assistance in writing the book.

The bulk of the volume is devoted to Landrieu’s own story, starting with his childhood in the mixed-race neighborhood of Broadmoor as the son of Moon Landrieu, who fought segregation as a state lawmaker and later as the city's mayor in the 1970s.

Landrieu recalls being the target of insults, racial epithets and death threats as a result of his father’s positions, something that he likened to the vitriol that would emerge years later when he moved to take down four Confederate statues.

While describing his family as open and welcoming to all races, he also acknowledges his own blind spots. He says he was surprised to learn years later that a black friend at Jesuit High School had always felt excluded by the mostly white student body.

Then there’s a recounting of his role in rescues as lieutenant governor during Hurricane Katrina and in rebuilding the city as mayor amid continuing challenges that Landrieu ties to a history of racism, including violence and poverty, with national policy prescriptions scattered throughout.

The Confederate monuments do not come into specific focus until the last quarter of the book. And while Landrieu’s description fills in some new details about the process, there’s little that won’t be familiar to anyone who followed the two-year saga of removing statues to Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the local militia known as the White League.

The genesis of the effort came roughly four years ago as Landrieu was trying to convince New Orleans-born jazz legend Wynton Marsalis to join the committee planning the celebrations surrounding the city’s tricentennial this year. Marsalis agreed but asked Landrieu to take down the Lee statue.

“Louis Armstrong left and never came back. He did not even want to be buried in his hometown,” Marsalis is quoted as saying. “You ever think about what Robert E. Lee means to someone black?”

Landrieu describes being “blindsided” by the “symbolic weight of the Confederate monuments.”

In an interview Monday, he described his reaction to that revelation by saying, “It wasn’t an epiphany, but it was like, ‘What a dummy, how could you not see that until someone you love and respect explained it to you?' ”

Landrieu describes ordering up research on the history of the Lee statue and the legal steps required to remove it. He finally committed to the idea after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

The book recounts the difficulty in finding a firm to take down the statues after the owner of the first company selected had his car firebombed, something Landrieu describes as domestic terrorism.

“This is part of the ho-hum racism that eats through our country every day,” Landrieu writes. “In other words, we really haven’t made it as far as we like to think — we’re still mired in a mentality where they could lynch you, destroy your reputation, hurt your business or engage in symbolic lynchings, like a cross burned on your lawn or the car in your driveway torched.”

The mayor doesn't delve much into previous attempts to reckon with the city's Confederate symbols. 

Moves by prior mayors to remove the White League monument are mentioned in passing. And there’s no discussion of one of the most dramatic episodes in that marker’s history: a 1993 protest that saw Duke square off against the Rev. Avery Alexander in a clash that ended with the 83-year-old civil rights leader being put in a choke hold by police officers and carried from the scene.

Likewise, the group Take ’Em Down NOLA, which was calling for the removal of a wide range of statues and symbols tied to Confederates, slaveowners or those seen as supporting white supremacy before Landrieu issued his call, is mentioned only briefly, though it is thanked in the acknowledgements.

In the end, Landrieu argues that while he lost support from some New Orleanians for the decision to take down the monuments, it was a worthwhile endeavor.

“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 knowing in your heart you’ve done something that will make you a better human being,” he concludes.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​