Presiding over the removal of three Confederate statues in his town recently, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a speech on race for the ages. Pretty fitting to consider it this Memorial Day.

Share story

Most holidays eventually become more about eating and drinking than about their original purpose. Americans don’t get enough time off, so it makes sense we’d want to have fun when a three-day weekend comes along.

This year I was just looking forward to the Northwest Folklife Festival, but a speech brought me back to the origins of Memorial Day.

On this day we remember Americans who sacrificed their lives in one of our country’s many wars. But at its beginning, before it encompassed all wars, Memorial Day was dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were killed during the Civil War.

That was by far America’s bloodiest war, and one we have not entirely put to rest. We need to remember some things more accurately in order to get unstuck, and that’s where the speech comes in.

New Orleans has finished removing from public places the statues of three heroes of the Confederacy. On May 17, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, addressed the outcry stirred up by the removals. What he said was so honest and rare for an American politician talking about race that it went viral.

Nothing about the speech would be remarkable if Americans were familiar with their history and clear about its present effects, but we’re not that kind of country yet.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

So, Landrieu had to give his audience a lesson they might not have gotten in school.

He started out with some praise for the city, then got to business. Here is some of what he said, taken from a transcript published in The New York Times.

“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 4,000 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.”

The removed statues were of Robert E. Lee, a Virginian who held people in slavery and who led the Confederate army; Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and P.G.T. Beauregard, a general who helped design the Confederate battle flag.

No, history shouldn’t be denied. Landrieu continued with this thought:

“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.”

Those statues weren’t just reminders of history, Landrieu said, they were celebrations of men who fought against the United States and for the enslavement of their fellow humans.

“These monuments,” he said, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

He also said he’d grown up in New Orleans and always took the statues for granted, but a friend asked him to think about a black child seeing a statue of Robert E. Lee every day on the way to school. How would a parent explain what the statue meant, what message it sent about her place in society?

“Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place,” Landrieu said.

Germany does not allow veneration of Nazi symbols. It has Holocaust memorials, and it continues to pay reparations. None of that brings back the dead or repairs the lives of those who suffered at the hands of that vile regime, but doing those things puts modern Germany on the right moral side. Wrong is wrong, and it has to be acknowledged as such in order for people to move on.

The Civil War devastated the United States and cost the lives of at least 620,000 fighters on the two sides. It does not honor the dead for us to put off the work of reconciliation that their blood should have made possible. Taking down flags and monuments to a lost and dishonorable cause is an important first step.

“If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society,” Landrieu said, “this would have all been in vain.”

We should honor the dead with a new dedication to truth and to brotherhood.