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After taking down Confederate monuments, New Orleans Mayor Landrieu hopes people rethink their history

In preparing to celebrate New Orleans’ 300th anniversary, Mayor Mitch Landrieu decided to remove his city’s public monuments to the Confederacy. Landrieu, author of the new book “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” talks with Judy Woodruff about the Stephon Clark shooting in Sacramento, President Trump’s “uncareful language” about race and what’s next for him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, first, we talk to another mayor who has had to confront a troubling history of racism in his city.

    Mitch Landrieu spearheaded the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans. He recounts the cultural and political battle to bring them down in a new book, "In the Shadow of Statues."

    We spoke earlier today. And I began — and he began his response to the situation in Sacramento.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    It's a very painful example, again, that we haven't gotten it right yet in the country.

    First of all, most law enforcement officers show up for work, they put their lives on the line, they risk their lives. But there have been too many examples over the years of police officers not being properly trained, trained to shoot first and ask questions later. And then there's a lot of gray area.

    But one of the things that's been universally true over the past couple of years that we have been dealing with is how to investigate these things so that the community feels like there's been an honest assessment of whether or not it was done appropriately or not.

    And I know that they're going through this in Sacramento. We used to go through this in New Orleans a lot. We have under federal consent to grief for eight years. All of our police officers now wear body cams.

    Every time there's a police-involved shooting, the area gets cordoned off. We have independently folks that are not on the police department to help investigate the matter, so the public knows about it.

    But, clearly, there's a rupture that has existed between police departments and the community. And you have to work really hard to put that back together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you came up with the idea a couple years ago, after talking to Wynton Marsalis…

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … of taking down Confederate statues, you met with enormous opposition.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    I certainly did. But I want to put this in context for the country.

    As New Orleans suffered from the effects of Katrina, and then Rita, and then Ike, and then Gustav, and then the BP oil spill and the recession, we were in the midst of rebuilding the cities. And as we built the hospitals and the riverfront, we were thinking about, well, how are we going to get ready for our 300th anniversary, which allowed us to really think about where we had been and what we were doing.

    And the public spaces came into full view. So, when I asked Wynton, who, as you know, is not only a great musician, but a great historian, to help me curate the 300th anniversary, he said, you really ought to think about taking those statues down, because they don't reflect who we are. And have you ever thought about them from the perspective or from the perspective of the African-American community?

    And, of course, that set off an explosion in my head. And I started thinking about why they were there. And that really kind of began the process of suggesting to the city that we take them down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, ultimately, they came down last year, because but not without — it became a national discussion.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the president got involved.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Yes, he sure did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At one point, he said, "It's sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart" by taking down these statues.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Well, it's really interesting, because these Confederate monuments were actually put up well after the Civil War ended.

    And, of course, everybody knows or should be able to acknowledge that the Civil War was fought to destroy the United States of America, not to unite it, and it was fought for the cause of slavery. And it shouldn't be hard to say that.

    And so what I say in the book is, I make a distinction between having these monuments up in places of reverence, where we can revere these men for what they did, because what they did was wrong, and remembering what they did, so that we never repeat it.

    And I think it was a very important step in the process that the country has to go through for racial reconciliation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet it's 150 years after this country fought that Civil War.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's 50 years after the civil rights movement.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why did it take so long?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    And it's a couple of years after we had an African-American president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Which goes to the big point.

    The fact that the speech that I gave actually resonated across the country means that we have a problem that hasn't been reconciled. And we have not really done a good job of it. And so whether it's police-community relations, whether it's other particular issues that we're confronting, we have to work through this issue of race that we obviously have not worked through very well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The country keeps dealing with it in different ways.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Well, we don't — the truth is, we don't deal with it at all. We act like, oh, we had the Civil War, we had civil rights, let's get over it, let's move behind.

    And the African-American community is saying, wait a minute, we have more to talk about and we have more to do. And there are tons of examples of it.

    But one of the things that the book tries to do is create an open invitation for people to rethink their history and to reflect on whether or not the history that was told was actually the true history, much less the whole history.

    And I think that, when they do that, they will recognize that, as a country, that diversity is a strength for America, not a weakness. And, of course, some people want to re-litigate that right now. And I think we have to restate it very clearly, so people know where we stand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that being heard right now in New Orleans and in the state of Louisiana?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Well…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are people accepting this now?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    We're certainly talking about it a lot now. And I think a lot of people are being moved to think about it, because when you put yourself in somebody else's shoes, it gives you a chance to see the world a little bit differently.

    So, I'm hoping people will really think through it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I quoted some of what the president said about the idea of taking down these Confederate statues. He is very much against it.

    How has he changed or affected the conversation around race in this country?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Well, he is certainly not the cause of our problems, but he is a symptom of them.

    And his uncareful language that he uses helps exacerbate it. He has given people who are avowed white supremacists the feeling that now is the time for them to come out of the shadows and speak forcefully to the notion that whites are actually better than African-Americans and that this nationalism and nativism that's manifesting itself is OK.

    And I just think that, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or liberal, one of the things we ought to agree about in America, as Americans, is that there's no room for white nationalism in the United States of America.

    And that has taken people into very dangerous places historically, not only in this country, and in other countries. And we can argue about whether or not we want to approach the world through tax cuts or what oppositions on war and peace and all that stuff has been on — on white nationalism, and the notion that, somehow, white people are superior to brown people or black people.

    That's not who we are as Americans. That's not who we aspire to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Your term as mayor is up in May of this year. A lot of conversation already about whether you are going to run for president in 2020.

    What is your thinking about it?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Well, first of all, I don't intend to do that. I'm coming to an end of a 30-year career. And I have been blessed to, in the last eight years, serve in one of the great cities of all time. And I'm very thankful to the public for everything they have done to help us stand and of course to celebrate our 300th anniversary.

    I hear the chatter, but everybody is just desperate to think about what's coming next, because I think people are tired of the chaos that we have.

    But there are going to be lots of other people that are going to do that. I don't intend to do that right now. In politics, as you know, you never say never. You don't know what the future holds, but that's not something that I'm planning on doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think, finally, the pluses and minuses are for a Southerner, a Southern Democrat in 2020 coming off this administration?

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    It's interesting.

    We always try to guess what is going to come next. And everything turns out to be completely unpredictable. Nobody could have predicted President Obama. Nobody could have predicted President Trump.

    And, as you know, as being a veteran journalist, that something is going to happen that we don't have any idea about relating to a world crisis, manmade. And it is going to change the way people think. And so I think it's way too early to try to game that out at this point in time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we thank you for coming in.

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans.

    The book is "In the Shadow of Statues–A White Southerner Confronts History."

  • Mitch Landrieu:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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