Sean Gardner/Getty Images(NEW ORLEANS) — New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is speaking out about his controversial decision to remove four Confederate monuments from his southern city, which sparked a debate about race and history in the United States.
On ABC’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast, Landrieu tells ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Political Director Rick Klein that after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city, “We did a lot of soul-searching in this city about what history we wanted to remember, what history we wanted to just identify as not being really part of who we were.”
During the interview, Landrieu says it was his friend – New Orleans native, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis – who first suggested to him that a way for the city to move forward was to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“It came into really clear focus as we were completely rebuilding the city. My friend Wynton Marsalis was the one who slapped me in the head and said: ‘You have to think about that.'”
The second-term mayor is promoting his new book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” which chronicles his decision to remove the monuments and the controversy that followed.
Landrieu writes that Marsalis asked him to “’Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who were, who we want to be or who we are?’” Landrieu continued, “Suddenly, I was listening.”
After that conversation in 2014, Landrieu said he knew that it would be a “big political fight” to change the city landscape.
Landrieu tells ABC News that early in his decision-making process he reached out to his father, Moon Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor and a leading civil rights pioneer. He says his father initially “expressed reservations” because he “felt the sting of having his life threatened and his family’s life threatened.”
He recalled that his father “knew this was going to be a very emotional thing and very hard because he had lived through.” Landrieu said he recently asked his father if he also would have called for the removal of the statues if he was “in his shoes” and he said that his father responded, “Absolutely.”
The statues of Lee, President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and the Battle of Liberty Place Monument were erected between 1884 and 1915. “Although the Lee icon has a commanding presence, Lee himself had virtually no ties to the city. Some records reflect that he visited New Orleans once, very briefly before the war,” Landrieu wrote.
Landrieu writes that he “doubled down” in his conviction to remove the statues in June 2015 after a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“We cannot change the past, but we are not obligated to cave in to some nostalgia-coated idea that a statue is good because it’s old. Symbols matter. And these were symbols of white supremacy put up for a particular reason.”
Later that year, New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in favor of dismantling the four prominent Confederate-era monuments which Landrieu says became symbols of “racism and white supremacy.”
But the decision to remove the statues sparked controversy and even some violence. A Baton Rouge, Louisiana company that was hired to remove the statues backed out after the “owner and his wife received death threats and his expensive sports car was set afire in the driveway of his business.”
Landrieu writes that “one of the most startling experiences” for him was being yelled at consistently be a woman while he was riding his bike in a park. And then to his surprise, he saw her when he was attending Mass with his wife and he saw that woman “giving out Communion – she was a Eucharistic minister. It was surreal.”
By May 2017, the statues in New Orleans were removed. Confederate statues and monuments were soon removed from cities across the U.S.
Although Landrieu supported removing the statues, he said on the podcast that the decision to remove his name from buildings should be on a case by case basis.
“I don’t really have any problem with the University of Washington and Lee being named after Robert E. Lee because what they are remembering him for and thanking him for his commitment that he had made to an educational institution that was a good thing,” Landrieu said, “But when you use him, right, for the purpose for sending a message of terrorism to African American officials and revere him for the bad thing that he did – which was tearing the United States of America apart, we have to distinguish between reverence and remembrance.”
Landrieu is leaving office after his term expires in May. When asked about the future for southern Democrats and conservative Democrats, he said “Certainly if you were living in the moment, you would say it’s pretty bleak. It’s a downward trajectory. “
Landrieu, who served two terms as lieutenant governor of Louisiana, said he “probably couldn’t get elected statewide right now.”
His book has sparked speculation that he will run in 2020. But when Landrieu was asked on “Powerhouse Politics” if he’s thinking about a presidential run, he said, “It’s not my intention to run.”
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