Advocate photo by Jim Mustian -- New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks with Neera Tanden, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

WASHINGTON — Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered an impassioned defense Friday of his administration's removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments in New Orleans, portraying the effort as a necessary precursor to mending racial divisions. 

Delivering a speech in the nation's capital, Landrieu said he was "saddened" by the uproar that accompanied the decision, mentioning threats that prompted construction crews to "wear masks to protect their identity from domestic terrorists" as they took down statues of three Confederate leaders and a fourth monument that commemorated a Reconstruction-era uprising. 

"I, the mayor of a major American city in the midst of one of the greatest rebuildings that the country has ever seen, could not lease a crane because all of the crane operators had been blacklisted," Landrieu said at the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy and advocacy organization.

The group invited the mayor to speak in Washington after a speech he gave last month in New Orleans attracted a wave of national attention and stoked speculation that Landrieu has his sights set on higher office.

Though Landrieu has been dismissive of the idea of a run for president, the rumblings continue. Hours before his speech, The Hill, a D.C.-based publication, floated the mayor as the "2020 dark-horse Dem" in an article quoting Louisiana and national Democrats and pollsters suggesting he would be a strong candidate.

Landrieu again sought to splash cold water on that theory Friday.

"I'm not running for president, but thank you," he said in response to the first audience question. "It's nice of people to think about that."

Landrieu's remarks Friday echoed the widely lauded address he delivered at Gallier Hall last month, touching on themes of race and equality. The earlier speech, he said, "came from the heart and the soul and the history of the people of the city of New Orleans."

"Because of race we are too often a block away from each other but a world apart," Landrieu added, describing the proximity and disparities of Central City and the Garden District. 

With violent crime surging back home — he informed the crowd that two more homicides had occurred on New Orleans' streets overnight — the mayor said critics have told him he should be focused on murder rather than monuments.

"I respectfully ask if you've ever thought about the possibility that these monuments, in a way, are murder," he said. "By design, they're not just metal and stone. They were crafted to send a message." 

Even with all of the challenges his administration has faced, from financial crises to hurricane recovery, Landrieu said he has not encountered a more difficult issue than race throughout his career in public service. Centuries-old wounds remain raw, he said, "because they never healed right in the first place." 

"Race lies at the root of so many problems, but we never really truly reckon with it until there's a flare-up," Landrieu said. "Our attention is fleeting and the conversation is shallow, and there's rarely any action or follow-up." 

On the topic of crime in New Orleans, Landrieu said he has had "a hard time getting anyone's attention on how to save" the young black men who are overwhelmingly the victims and perpetrators of murder in the city.

"When the victim is a young child, or it's a white college student, or it's a professional athlete, everything stops, at least for a minute," he said. "When will we see that humanity in all people?"

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