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An Awakening: One Mayor’s Encounter with Monuments

By Father John Welch, O.Carm., is on the Board of Members at Joliet Catholic Academy. | August 2020

An Awakening: One Mayor’s Encounter With Monuments

Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, has written an account of his growing awareness of the symbolism of four major monuments in New Orleans. In The Shadow of Statues (2018), he confesses to having lived in the presence of these monuments without giving them much thought.

The four statues were of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and the White League. Lee commanded the Confederate forces; Davis was president of the Confederate States; Beauregard led the assault on Fort Sumter; the White League, an obelisk, honored a revolt in which thousands of whites, mostly Confederate veterans, revolted against reconstruction and attacked black militia and members of the metropolitan police.

Landrieu wrote, “I believe that the four Confederate monuments … cast a dark and repressive shadow over my city and, in a way, held us back. It took most of my lifetime to see this.”

An awakening

After two terms as mayor of New Orleans, and by City Charter not allowed a third term, Landrieu wanted to finish his term with a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the city. He wanted to showcase the city’s resurrection after Hurricane Katrina, during which time he had been lieutenant governor. Landrieu asked a famous New Orleans’ black musician, Wynton Marsalis, then living in New York, if he would help with the celebration.

Marsalis said, “I’ll do it. But there is something I’d like you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Take down the Robert E. Lee statue.”

Landrieu admits the request confused him. Marsalis informed him about the symbolism of the statues and what they said to the black citizens of New Orleans.

Eventually, Landrieu began to consider removing the four statues honoring the Confederacy.

Landrieu dug into the history of the city and the history of those monuments. As an attorney, he also wanted to know who owned the statues and the land. In his research he realized that the statues were part of a late 19th-century, early 20th-century effort to re-write history and provide a noble explanation for the South engaging in the Civil War. Confederate forces were now seen as noble soldiers fighting for Southern rights. This new narrative told the story of the Civil War as a heroic epic, giving rise to a romantic notion known as the Lost Cause.

Landrieu realized that, growing up, he and other children were taught a purposefully false history. The statues in New Orleans were impressive memorials, but they represented something abhorrent, the enslavement of black people. The war was fought for the right to own and sell black human beings. The four monuments enshrined institutional racism.

A visitor at Gettysburg

For one semester, I was a visiting Catholic professor at the Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg, PA. I would make a weekly trip from Washington, D.C., to the seminary; the route went through the famous Gettysburg battlefield. I traveled early in the morning when mists covered the field. It was an eerie sensation to see monuments emerging from the mists, portraying batteries of cannon and clusters of soldiers with battle flags flying. The seminary itself had been a lookout for both sides during the battle; it still bears the scars of that encounter. It was from a nearby ridge that Major General George Pickett began his doomed charge against the Union position.

Scanning the field, the imagination creates vivid scenes. The valor of the soldiers on both sides of the great battle is unquestioned. Their bravery and dedication to their causes compels admiration. The seminary was used as a field hospital by both sides. Confederate troops occupied the grounds, until Robert E. Lee and his army retreated back into Virginia. The war dragged on for nearly two more years until Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

In an eloquent passage in his Memoirs, Grant reflected on his feelings at the time of Lee’s surrender. He presents a clear-eyed assessment of Lee and the Confederacy: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

A week before Christmas, 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in favor of dismantling the monuments. Mitch Landrieu had the four Confederate monuments removed. In his book he describes the opposition to the project, including personal harassment. He had difficulty finding construction companies to do the work because of threats of violence. The statue of Robert E. Lee was the final monument removed.

Acknowledgments

In the epilogue to his book, Landrieu quotes Saint Paul VI: “If you want peace, work for justice.” He credits many people for giving him the support and the encouragement to endure. He cites his Jesuit education and its stated goal to be “men for others,” a motivation for him in his political life.

In his acknowledgments, the last person Landrieu thanks is the long-serving congressman from Georgia, John Lewis, a courageous civil rights activist known as “the conscience of the Congress.” Lewis is one of Landrieu’s heroes, and a hero whose presence and witness continues to be relevant.

Mitch Landrieu calls his awakening transformative awareness and cites the words of “Amazing Grace.” This beautiful hymn was written as atonement by John Newton, a former slave trader: “I was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”