In Praise of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Yale Civil War-era historian David Blight salutes Landrieu’s willingness to look straight into his city’s past and do something about it.

Here is a taste of his powerful Atlantic piece “The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans“:

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there 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?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

Read the entire article here.