In 2018 the outgoing mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, Mitch Landrieu published a book that is important for the times we find ourselves in today. The book ” In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” addresses several current issues that are at the center of our contentious times; confederate statues, revisionist history, white privilege and the political and economic legacy of racism. The Landrieu name had a long history in Louisiana. Mitch Landrieu’s father, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was the mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, serving in the House of Representatives and was President Carter’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Mitch got his law degree from Loyola University and served in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming mayor in 2010. After serving a second term as mayor he received training as a mediator at Harvard’s Law School Negotiation Project.
In The Shadow of Statues reads like a coming of age autobiography as he describes his growing awareness of the centrality of racial prejudice in the south beginning with the public reaction to his father’s inclusion of Black citizens in city government in the 70’s, the exposure 0f the legacy of racism during the Katrina disaster and the backlash he experienced when he decided to remove the cities confederate statues in preparation for the 3ooth anniversary of the city of New Orleans.
For most of his life in New Orleans, Landrieu saw the confederate statues but only as part of a larger tapestry of southern culture that gave Louisiana, and by extension the south, a unique atmosphere that brought people together for a sense of nostalgic recreation. The debate over the existence of the confederate statues and the confederate flag had been a long simmering issue for several years. After previous attempts to have the flag removed in South Carolina, the murder of 9 members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church gave Governor Nikki Haley enough political cover to have the confederate flag removed from the South Carolina Capital Grounds in 2015. The growing influences of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion have become a counterweight to an established order that runs through all sectors of society.
As part of the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina Representative Landrieu witnessed a gentler side of Louisiana’s citizens as they came together for survival. In that desperate time of need, citizens of all races helped each other. It was a redeeming moment for Landrieu that the love he has for the south, and specifically New Orleans, is not entirely misplaced.
When Mitch Landrieu won the mayoral election he was confronted with the massive rebuilding effort after the hurricane. In a conversation with the musician Wynton Marsalis, Landrieu talked about his purpose to celebrate the 300th anniversary of New Orleans and diversify the city. Marsalis impressed upon him that the statue of Robert E. Lee, in the center in the city, needed to come down in a city that is 60% Black. The message was not lost on him, despite his immediate reaction of apprehension knowing how hard such a project would be. But immediately he began to ask himself the important questions of who has the authority over the statues and the land they occupy.
With the conviction of the rightness of his belief that the statues must come down Mayor Landrieu had to do many things at once. Public hearings on the authority over the statues, developing an operational plan for their removal and finally the security and ultimate new location for the statues. All of those objectives were the source of long and heated debates, threats of retaliation against heavy equipment subcontractors and the loss of former friends.
Mayor Landrieu felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when he left office after a second term as Mayor. It was an affirmation of his faith in the soul of the south that a new identity is possible. Reading this book I could feel his sense of pride in his ability to marshal the forces to get this done, in the face of tremendous obstacles. I see Mitch Landrieu’s story as an example of a white man taking the initiative to heal the wounds of our racist passed and build bridges based on a common humanity by removing the visible symbols of that past.