Oprah Talks to Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
On May 19, 2017, Mitch Landrieu delivered a speech to the people of New Orleans unlike any they, or the rest of America, had ever heard. On the surface, his subject was the recent removal of four statues around the city, each celebrating the Confederacy. Mayor Landrieu explained in powerful language that these tributes to the cause of preserving slavery were offensive, and that his conscience demanded they be taken down. But his remarks weren’t just about statues. The mayor spoke movingly and candidly about race in America—an especially fraught subject for a white Southerner like him—and the need for Americans to acknowledge the uglier aspects of our history. As his time in office came to a close, we sat down to talk about race, history, his bestselling book, In the Shadow of Statues, and where he believes America should go from here.
Oprah: Welcome, Mr. Mayor.
Mitch Landrieu: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be with you.
OW: And I with you, during these last few weeks of your second and final term.
ML: Twenty-one days left. I’ve been in public office for 30 years.
OW: And what’s changed over those years?
ML: Well, when you look back on your life, as I did when writing my book, you make connections. I was born in 1960, the year my father was elected to the Louisiana legislature. This kid gets elected, and he’s one of the only people to vote against segregation laws. Afterward, he’s confronted by Leander Perez, one of the prominent segregationists in the South at the time, and another segregationist congressman. They tell him, “You’re a marked man.” And here we are, all these years later, and race still permeates our lives.
OW: Your parents taught you well. I believe you’re one of the people leading the way in this country. And part of the reason is your willingness to say uncomfortable things.
ML: I wrote the book and the speech because I felt it was important for a white person to say unequivocally something that should be really, really simple: The Confederacy fought to destroy the United States as we knew it and preserve slavery, and it was on the wrong side of humanity. Can’t we admit this is historical fact? We continue to debate that issue. It isn’t debatable.
OW: When you said that in the book, I had to read it again. It’s so rare that a white person admits that it was just wrong.
ML: When I formally said, “I am sorry for slavery,” people said, “Who are you to say that?” Well, I’m the duly elected mayor of New Orleans, a continuous body of government that’s existed in this country since 1718, thank you very much. More people were sold as slaves in New Orleans than anywhere else in America.
OW: What got you to consider removing the statues?
ML: When we began thinking about the 300th anniversary celebration for the city, I wondered, What can we build that’s going to make us better? I asked my buddy Wynton Marsalis to help me ponder that. He said, “I’ll help you, but I want you to think about taking down the Robert E. Lee statue.” I said, “Why?” He goes, “Do you know who put that up and why it’s there and what its purpose is?” The truth is, I hadn’t thought about it much.
OW: You’d passed by it all these years—
ML: Everybody did. New Orleans’s Confederate statues were in the four most prominent places in the city. Wynton says, “Have you thought about them from our perspective?” And it was like all this information that had been in my head my whole life exploded. So I did as he asked: I thought about it.
OW: And decided the statues had to come down?
ML: Actually, my first response was Oh, hell no. We were still rebuilding the city after Katrina, and I knew if I brought this up, all hell would break loose.
OW: Who wants to go stepping into that?
ML: Exactly. But then I started doing research. And I realized these monuments were part of an initiative brought about by what historians now call the Cult of the Lost Cause. These were people who, well after the Civil War ended, wanted to send a message that they still weren’t coming along with the rest of the country. So they erected monuments to revere people who fought to preserve slavery. Now, New Orleans was never a Confederate town—we just had a mayor who sympathized with the Confederacy and allowed these statues to be built. So I read this, and I’m thinking, Wait a minute.
OW: A 12-year-old girl helped change your mind, too.
ML: Yes. A mother, an African American woman, told me a story of driving by the Robert E. Lee monument, and her little girl says, “Mommy, what is that?” She says, “Oh, a statue of Robert E. Lee. He was a general.” “What war did he fight in?” “The Civil War.” “Which side?” “The Confederacy.” She said, “Mommy, he didn’t fight for me?” She said, “No, baby, for the other side.” The girl said, “The side that protected slavery?” The mother said, “Uh-huh.” And the child says, “Mommy, why is he up there?” The mother said, “I could not answer that question.” I thought, If I can’t, either, then why is that statue there?
OW: What about the people who say, “You can’t remove this; this is history”?
ML: There is a difference between remembering history and revering it. I would ask people, “Can you point out one other monument in America that reveres a general who lost?”
OW: You don’t usually get a monument when you lose.
ML: George Washington is on the mall, not King George.
OW: Was there a sense of relief once they were all taken down?
ML: Yes, and also pride. There are very few times in life that you get to course- correct history.
OW: Was this one of the hardest things you ever did?
ML: Rebuilding a city that was destroyed and leading a group of people beaten down badly by history, by Katrina, by Rita, by Ike, by Gustav, by the recession, by the BP oil spill— that was a monumental task. But this was also important. It helped heal a wound.
OW: You lost a lot of your white support.
ML: I lost two-thirds of it.
OW: When you walk through town, do some white people treat you differently?
ML: Oh, absolutely. Some are furious. To people who say, “You ruined the city, I’ll never vote for you again,” I say, “Great, I’m never running for anything again, so we’re good to go.”
OW: What are you going to do 21 days from now?
ML: I’m very open to doing something different.
OW: Like run for president?
ML: Politicians say “I’m not planning to do it” when they really are, but I’m really not. I’ve always wanted to use whatever gifts or talents I have to help people, and that’s not the only means of doing that.
OW: There are a lot of different ways to touch people.
ML: Yes. I do think the country is in a really bad place right now. We’re fighting with each other over a bunch of silliness, relitigating issues that should be closed, like whether diversity is a strength or a weakness. We are a multicultural country. That’s who we are. Why are we resisting that? Everybody in this country has to be seen and heard. Why are we moving backward rather than forward?
OW: If you don’t believe we’re stronger as one, then you don’t believe in the United States.
ML: I agree. And I think that idea is worth fighting for.