October 23, 2017

Memorial Day: In the Age of Trump and Twitter, A Great American Speech

Note from CM: Today is Memorial Day in the United States. I can think of no better way to honor and memorialize those who have given their lives in service to our country than to re-post this recent brilliant speech that speaks to “the better angels of our nature” as Americans. Here is the full text of the remarks delivered May 19, 2017 by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, upon his removal of the last of the city’s several Confederate monuments.

• • •

Thank you for coming.

The soul of our beloved City is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way — for both good and for ill. It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans — the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando De Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Colorix, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese and so many more.

You see — New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one. But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth. As President George W. Bush said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other. So, let’s start with the facts.

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears… I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.

Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all our history. He recalled a piece of stone, a slave auction block engraved with a marker commemorating a single moment in 1830 when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay stood and spoke from it. President Obama said, “Consider what this artifact tells us about history… on a stone where day after day for years, men and women… bound and bought and sold and bid like cattle on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet. For a long time the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”

A piece of stone — one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today… for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights… I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.

I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing and this is what that looks like. So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.

This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.

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. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures. Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.

All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it! Out of many we are one — and we really do love it! And yet, we still seem to find so many excuses for not doing the right thing. Again, remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

We forget, we deny how much we really depend on each other, how much we need each other. We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial. We still find a way to say ‘wait’/not so fast, but like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “wait has almost always meant never.” We can’t wait any longer. We need to change. And we need to change now.

No more waiting. This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain. While some have driven by these monuments every day and either revered their beauty or failed to see them at all, many of our neighbors and fellow Americans see them very clearly. Many are painfully aware of the long shadows their presence casts; not only literally but figuratively. And they clearly receive the message that the Confederacy and the cult of the lost cause intended to deliver.

Earlier this week, as the cult of the lost cause statue of P.G.T Beauregard came down, world renowned musician Terence Blanchard stood watch, his wife Robin and their two beautiful daughters at their side. Terence went to a high school on the edge of City Park named after one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots, John F. Kennedy. But to get there he had to pass by this monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.

He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride… it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.” Yes, Terence, it is and it is long overdue. Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians who can follow in Terence and Robin’s remarkable footsteps.

A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.

We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves — at this point in our history — after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe and after the tornado — if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces… would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all… not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in… all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes. Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.

After decades of public debate, of anger, of anxiety, of anticipation, of humiliation and of frustration. After public hearings and approvals from three separate community led commissions. After two robust public hearings and a 6-1 vote by the duly elected New Orleans City Council. After review by 13 different federal and state judges. The full weight of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government has been brought to bear and the monuments in accordance with the law have been removed. So now is the time to come together and heal and focus on our larger task. Not only building new symbols, but making this city a beautiful manifestation of what is possible and what we as a people can become.

Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and now universally loved Nelson Mandela and what he said after the fall of apartheid. “If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.” So before we part let us again state the truth clearly.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered. As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.

Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause. Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today to unite as one people when he said: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish — a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Thank you.

• • •

Other commentary on this speech:

Mitch Landrieu Reminds Us that Eloquence Still Exists

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on race was one for the ages

New Orleans mayor made a speech on race and history we all need to hear

Comments

  1. Landrieu and that speech are worthy of respect and honor.

    May we all desire to make straight that which is crooked.

  2. Robert F says:

    Amen.

    One thing: When Landrieu says this, “Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and now universally loved Nelson Mandela … said after the fall of apartheid,” he is incorrect. Sadly, Mandela is not universally loved, nor universally honored. There are many, perhaps a growing number, who do not love or honor him, nor Martin Luther King or many of the other fighters for human freedom and liberation for that matter. If you had been at Lee Circle a few weeks ago, you would’ve seen some of them waving Confederate flags and carrying torches (Yes, torches!) in the night, protesting the removal of Lee’s statue from its place of honor in New Orleans. For each one who went to that protest, there are many more who didn’t, but feel much the same as they do. You can bet that these do not hold Mandela or King or the other freedom fighters in love or honor. They have lately come out from under their rocks and sheets, emboldened by recent events in our political life to publicly portray themselves as the victims of out-of-control, government perpetrated political correctness. They want to pull our country back to a time when Lee’s statue and memory, and all the other monuments and memories to our nation’s evil, were held in places of honor and even love. And they want the memory of slavery and the real conditions surrounding it, as well as the many other evils that have been suppressed in our country’s memory, and which are only now starting to be recovered, to once again be suppressed and discounted and forgotten. The rest of us cannot let them succeed.

  3. Ronald Avra says:

    If you ever wondered what ‘fair and balanced’ really is, that speech is a clear demonstration.

  4. Thank you. Inspiring and eloquent.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I have to say something about the Lost Cause mythology.

    Lost Cause was probably the best of a bad set of solutions; some of the alternatives would have been far worse. It lessened the desire for revenge in the defeated South by giving them a national myth to hold on to. The night before the surrender at Appomatox, Lee (in a manner similar to Washington) defused a plan by other Confederate officers to take to the hills and go guerilla (which would probably have degenerated into terrorism) — see the never-ending guerilla rebellions in various Third World countries (and the extermination strategy to finally put them down) for where that could have led.

    One of the main switch points for Alternate History SF is alternate endings to the American Civil War; Harry Turtledove wrote a series where the Union and Confederacy end on bad blood that parallels the history of Europe — Total War with each generation, each peace in between just an opportunity to prepare for the next war of revenge, finally retelling the buildup to World Wars 1 & 2 in an American setting. Now imagine that as an escalating guerilla and counter-guerilla blood feud. The mythology of The Lost Cause dodged that bullet.

    Though Lee is caught in the crossfire today, he was instrumental in discouraging a violent version of The South Shall Rise Again; to him. the war was over, the matter had been resolved. Postwar until his death in 1870, Lee was a damper rod whose example prevented the postwar situation from blowing sky-high.

    (I’m not going to start on how the Federals looted the postwar South under Reconstruction, building resentment and hatred (taken out on the blacks afterwards) among Southern whites. “To the Victor belong the Spoils”, Federal military governors becoming multi-millionares, using black garrison troops (much cheaper than white troops, only paid half as much) as enforcers. Or the fact that White Supremacy was considered as fundamental a Law of Nature as Gravity on both sides of Mason-Dixon, Curse-of-Ham justification giving way to Social Darwinist justification; the myth is that the North was a color-blind Paradise while the South was proto-Nazi, but NOBODY’s hands are clean on this one.)

    Though what happened in the postwar South was bad, things could have gotten far worse without The Lost Cause to cling to.

    • Robert F says:

      Though Lee is caught in the crossfire today, he was instrumental in discouraging a violent version of The South Shall Rise Again; to him. the war was over, the matter had been resolved. Postwar until his death in 1870, Lee was a damper rod whose example prevented the postwar situation from blowing sky-high.

      Admittedly, the victors exploited the vanquished. It can’t be justified.

      And admittedly, many in the North and South wanted to just move on, and leave the war behind rather than keep would open. This would seem like a good thing. Forget the bitterness and pain, start over. Except that, as a result of that desire, a national act of amnesia was undertaken, and the country as whole did its best to forget the War and its causes: the South got to keep its mythology and remember its loses as honorable ones, and the North ignored the way things carried on as usual in the Southern culture, minus slavery. And let’s face it, the North wasn’t a Utopia of racial tolerance; just the opposite. The conclusion of the war didn’t resolve things in the South, or the North, but America wanted to pretend it did. This was been one of the major national problems in the wake of the Civil War: the desire to pretend that things were over and done with, when they weren’t. The result was Jim Crow, lynchings, and the whole sorry legacy that haunts us to this day.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I wonder if that had to do with the timing of when the Civil War blew, with an Idealist generation in their prime and in control. (With their black-and-white thinking and Righteous Moral Fury for The Cause, similar to the Baby Boomers in the Sixties). Basically, things went down when Social Justice Warrior Idealists were ascendant on both sides of Mason/Dixon. Idealist generations like things very tidy and on-mission with their Righteous narrative, and are very prone to the Corruption of Righteousness.

    • “see the never-ending guerilla rebellions in various Third World countries (and the extermination strategy to finally put them down) for where that could have led.”

      At least that would have kept the issue of Southern stubbornness with regard to civil rights front and center.

      • flatrocker says:

        Might have also done wonders to expose northern hypocrisy as well.
        Nothing like a good ole guerilla war to keep us all honest. Dang that Bobby Lee.

        I pray your comment had a lot of tongue-in-cheek.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Who do you think sold the South their Animate Property in the first place?
          (Before the heirs to those Slave-trade fortunes got their noses out-of-joint in all Righteousness towards the slave states; that was also a factor in the South digging in their heels.)

          “Who sails the ships out of Boston
          Loaded with Bibles and Rum?
          Who drinks a toast
          To the Ivory Coast?
          Hail Africa! The slavers have come!”
          — “Molasses to Rum”, 1776: The Musical
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeuaTpH6Ck0
          (Rutledge of South Carolina, spokesman for the Southern colonies, reacting to Adams of Massachusetts’ denunciation of Southern Slavery. The compromises that resulted to present a united front against England was the first move the long unstable balancing act that blew up in 1861.)

  6. The speech seems to ignore the major contributions, for good and ill, of those cultures influencing or housed in my own blood and DNA, cultures which formed the two sides most bitterly opposed in the War Between the States and which despised each other, often with very good reason. The New England Yankees and the Southern Aristocrats had some attractive surfaces to offer but following out their roots leads to the totalitarian regimes of Geneva and Jamaica with their rigid authoritarian control and contempt for common people.

    Yes, it was a different world back then, but not all that far away as it would seem. I have touched and spoken with people who themselves touched and spoke with people born into slavery. From certain points of view, that slavery continues today, unacknowledged by most and expanded far beyond the confines of color of skin. My flag is out on my front porch today, probably a little different than yours, if you have one, or at least the picture of one you hold in your mind. Mine has thirteen stars in a centered circle like Jesus and the disciples, and says LIBERTY along the edge. That concept seemed like a good idea at the time and could still work out, tho that is up in the air right now, as was the War Between the States for most of its course until concentrated terrorism won the day.

    One thing I keep in mind on Memorial Day is that it is a good day to stay off the roads. Another is, like an old fire fighter picking up his head at a wafting hint of smoke, I watch for hints of self-righteousness. We lost a million countrymen and women, give or take a few, no one knows for sure, but more than all our other wars put together. Biblical in proportion and savagery. Another thing I keep in mind while trying to keep my balance, one of the marks of a totalitarian regime or empire is you can check out, but you can never leave. And whatever the war, whatever the cost, the greatest burden and expense has always been borne by the common people. Of whatever stripe, they are worth remembering today.

  7. Steve White says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’d just read a post on Facebook criticizing the removal of the statues. Reading the speech in whole made more sense to me. Although I’d be more in favor of making sure the story of the slaves was remembered than in removing the monuments to Confederate leaders.

    Like Headless Unicorn Guy, Lee has been a personal hero of mine, not for fighting for the Confederacy but in losing gracefully and being one country again after surrendering.

    The article my Facebook friend linked to:
    https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2017/05/29/the-end-of-memory/

    Perhaps this writer and Landrieu are not so far apart after all? Remember all the stories.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It’s too much like the Zero Sum Game, where to remember the story of the slaves you have to crush down the story of the Confederate leaders — for one to be elevated to the Top, the other has to be pushed to the Bottom. Cue the building resentment in those eggs who were broken for the latest Righteous omelet.

  8. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    Thanks. As one who grew up under apartheid and came of age under Mandela, I cannot support this enough. As a fair amount (but not all) of my (ex-) fellow countrymen and women realized: You will only honour the past if you realize, recognize and then call it what it was. Apartheid was a discriminatory system against the majority of the country’s inhabitants in order to keep a small minority ensconced in political and economic power. The Confederacy was formed to continue the practice of slavery, and for no other reason. The subjugation and dehumanizing of our fellow human beings in order to profit of them. It is the most degenerate institution known to man. And those who took up arms to defend it deserve pity, if not contempt. End of bloody story. Sure, they were children of their times, especially the common folk. So we’re some of my own ancestors. I know why some of my family kept on voting for the National Party between 1948 and 1994. Because they were scared of Communism. Still doesn’t make it right. Still doesn’t justify statues of Verwoerd and Malan and Strijdom etc etc. And flag waving of the Oranje-Blanje-Blou. For much the same reason, Confederate flag waiver and statue-keepers are contemptible fools, if not racist asshole.

    I have spoken. I feel very strong about this.

  9. I have several Facebook friends who live in the Baton Rouge area. On the day this went down, several of them had posts to the effect of “New Orleans is dead to me”. I am sympathetic to their position, sort of: New Orleans hasn’t had an honest mayor for decades and I am not a fan of the one they currently have. But I would be at least a little bit more sympathetic if they hadn’t just linked arms with some of the worst specimens of humanity to nominate and then elect a candidate whose message is sheer unbridled hatred for all who are outside of the rich straight white Christian male few.

    Even if the guy is a crook, can you agree that he at least makes a great speech, even if you disagree with the ultimate conclusion of said speech?

    As a native New Orleanian I will confess that I am sad to see the monuments go, and I do see it as an unfortunate triumph of the elitist, politically correct air that is so rampant in modern liberalism. Yet blacks are people for whom Jesus Christ died, and if, for their sake, I must let go of that part of my city’s history, then so be it.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    In any case, New Orleans politics has always read like something out of South Park.

    Like the election in the 1830s when partisans of both sides got well-lubricated, broke into National Guard armories, and shot it out up and down the length of Canal Street. (Fortunately, they were lousy shots.) After the election, the losers had to hide out in the swamp for a couple months.

    Then during Reconstruction, when the local KKK shot it out with Federal occupation troops — and won. That statue at the foot of Canal Street where it ends at the river was originally an armed Klansman with the inscription “Dedicated to White Supremacy”. (When taken by the Feds, the occupation of New Orleans was one of the harshest of the Civil War, supervised by Military Governor General Benjamin Butler, probably THE most corrupt general in the entire Union army. Even sold New Orleans blacks back into slavery in Confederate-held territory for a cut of the take after freeing them with great fanfare.)

    Then all the shenanigans around Hurricane Katrina a few years ago.

    That is one WEIRD town.