After a month of headlines across the country and world chronicling the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans, the spotlight has now narrowed to focus on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Friday address laying out the reasons for the decision in starkly moral terms and addressing issues of race and history head-on.
As crews worked into the afternoon to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from its towering p…
The speech — given before a small invited audience at Gallier Hall as crews were preparing to lift the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from its pedestal a few blocks away at Lee Circle — has received glowing accolades from columnists and editors at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Chicago Tribune.
It also has exploded on social media and on blogs, with many commenters praising its elegance and pointing readers to a transcript or video of the whole speech.
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“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of 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," Landrieu said in the address, going on to ask how to explain to a black child why a Confederate general occupied one of the most prominent spaces in the city.
“Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” he said, in a widely quoted portion of the address.
While the removal of monuments to Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis and a Reconstruction-era uprising known as the Battle of Liberty Place remains a hotly contested issue in Louisiana, the response from liberal commentators elsewhere has been unanimously positive. The attention may provide valuable for Landrieu should he continue to be mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.
After more than nine hours of labor, workers successfully removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from his pedestal at Lee Circle on Friday...
“Landrieu declared with astonishing moral and historical clarity that these were not monuments to some bygone way of Southern life implied by believers in the Lost Cause,” Jack Holmes wrote on Esquire's website. “They were symbols of white supremacy, and of the systemic oppression of human beings.”
At the same time, some of the local activists who long called for the monuments to come down insist that while the speech was well done, more remains to be done to purge symbols of the Confederacy from New Orleans and that more credit should be given to those who worked on the issue for decades, not just to Landrieu.
In a column titled “Mitch Landrieu reminds us that eloquence still exists,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni described the speech as addressing “matters that are forever tripping us up — race, history, healing — better than anything I’ve heard or read in a long time. It was the masterpiece we needed at the moment we needed it, and I fear that it was lost in the brutal whirl of news these days.”
Bruni’s column contrasted the empathy of Landrieu’s speech with the “outrage” and “rants” he argued Democrats have “stooped to” since the election of President Donald Trump.
At the Washington Post, Janell Ross, who covers race, posted a transcript of the speech and praised the “direct but poetic manner in which Landrieu described the ideas that have provided a comforting but incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the country’s past, facilitating anger about social and political change in the present.”
In the Chicago Tribune, columnist Mary Schmich wrote that she hadn’t planned on reading the speech.
“Who reads a whole speech? By a mayor, any mayor, anywhere?” Schmich wrote.
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“But after the accolades kept floating past on social media — 'stunning,' 'moving,' 'must-read' — I clicked on the speech out of curiosity,” she wrote. “I've been thinking about its eloquence, power and humility ever since.”
The speech has also been positively compared to presidential candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University in 1965, considered a landmark moment in the civil rights struggle.
“Moving, powerful, truthful, fearless. Every American should read this speech. 100 years from now they'll study it,” Paul Begala, who was an adviser to former President Bill Clinton and is a contributor to CNN, said on Twitter.
Particularly during his second and final term, Landrieu has maintained a surprisingly large presence on the national political scene for a mayor of a city that doesn’t even crack the top 50 in terms of population.
In part that’s been driven by the attention New Orleans has received during its recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the national media blitz that accompanied the flood’s 10th anniversary in 2015, and by his appearances, speeches and op-eds for national publications and think tanks.
But that attention has not been as focused on Landrieu himself until the past few days.
The reaction may result, in part, from the unusual nature of the speech.
It’s rare for any politician, let alone a white mayor in the South, to devote an entire speech to race. Even more rare is a speech that directly confronts racism in moral terms, admits to personal blind spots and acknowledges the problematic history of the politician’s own city.
The moment in the spotlight comes at a time when Landrieu's name has begun to be included in lists of possible Democratic presidential contenders in 2020.
“Landrieu got a lot of mileage over his handling of the Confederate statues. It could help him a lot in the party, particularly with African-American voters and Southern moderates,” said Charlie Cook, editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report.
However, all the attention to the speech has rubbed some of the activists who have long worked toward removing Confederate symbols in the city the wrong way.
Malcolm Suber, the organizer of Take 'Em Down NOLA, described it as “a wonderful speech, absolutely right in its conclusion." But pointing to a list of more than 100 other statues and street names he believes support white supremacy in the city, Suber added, “The question is: Does the mayor believe the words he spoke? If he really believed what he said, he would be on our side in taking down all the Confederate monuments.”
Suber — who was at the Lee statue when the speech was given — also said Landrieu is taking credit for a movement that started long before he realized two years ago that the statues were a problem for many New Orleanians. Members of the black community have been working for decades to get the monuments removed.
“He chose to move to the front of the parade and be the drum major, so he wants all the attention to himself,” Suber said. “We are convinced if we had not pushed and pressed and pushed hard on this thing, those statues would still be standing.”