New Orleans mayor on Confederate monuments battle, institutional racism

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is opening up about his decision to remove four Confederate monuments from prominent places in his city. Last year the Democrat removed statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which commemorated an attempt by white supremacists to overthrow the city's integrated government after the Civil War.

Landrieu, who chronicles the path he took toward removing the monuments in his new book, "In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History," said it all started from a conversation he had with his friend, musician Wynton Marsalis.

cover-in-the-shadows-of-statues.jpg

"As we begun to prepare for [New Orleans'] 300th anniversary, which is in a couple of weeks, by the way, I asked Wynton to help me. And he said, 'Well, I'll help you, but you really ought to think about taking down the Robert E. Lee statue.' I said, 'Why would I do that?' He said, 'Well, have you ever thought about who put it there or why it's there or what impact it has on people like me?' And the next thing he said really just exploded my brain which was, 'You know, Louis Armstrong left here and didn't want to come back because of that statue,'" Landrieu recalled. "And when he said that, the notion of the great diaspora, five million African-Americans who fled the South after the Civil War, and really just troubled me greatly. And I told him that I would look into it, and I did."

He said that in a city that's 60 percent African-American, the monuments were put up for a reason: "to send a message that notwithstanding the fact that the Confederacy lost the war, that that idea was still in control of the South."

"And much like Jim Crow laws, much like separate but equal, much like the laws that prohibited African-Americans from following whites in a car on the highway and passing them, these statutes were put up well after the Civil War for the specific purpose of revering the Confederacy, which was designed to destroy the nation over the cause of slavery," Landrieu said.

Not only did Landrieu face opposition, but he also encountered logistical challenges – including finding a crane to take down the monuments.

"After the decision was made legally to take them down, even a powerful mayor of a city that was rebuilding the entire city – airports, riverfronts, schools – I couldn't find anybody to give me a crane. And I couldn't find a crane operator, which really began to introduce me into the concept of institutional racism and what that really meant," Landrieu said. "You could have the law on your side, but if you didn't have the levers of power or the money or the equipment, you were basically screwed, forgive the language. But you couldn't get anything done. That story came back to be powerful because I've heard that from a lot of my friends for many years over a long time."

Landrieu made clear that he did not accomplish this on his own.

"A lot of other people have made greater sacrifices than I will ever make to this particular cause. … I just tried to remember the other people that had courage and just kind of kept walking. And a lot of people helped. This was a communal effort. This is not something, clearly, that I did by myself," Landrieu said.