I don’t want this weekend to slip by without a quick comment about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s address on Friday. The New Orleans mayor chose the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument to deliver remarks about why he believed it was justified. It is a remarkable speech on a number of levels.

First, the mayor could have directed the public to his previous statements. He did not have to give this speech. He also could have reserved his comments to a few words about how he hoped the removal of the four monuments might lead to some kind of healing and an opportunity to turn an important page in the city’s past.

In the end, what Mayor Landrieu chose to do was issue the most direct public statement against the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War to date. I don’t think you can understate its significance. It is impossible for me to imagine a public official giving a speech like this in any southern city even 10 years ago. Even today such a bold stance such as this is somewhat shocking.

I do think there is a little politics at work here. By linking the removal of these monuments so directly with the Lost Cause the mayor may be trying to stake out a position in regard to other monuments, including Andrew Jackson, which Take Em Down Nola has already announced is its next target.

That said, I strongly encourage you to read the speech in its entirety, but for now here are a few excerpts that caught my eye:

So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.

So, let’s start with the facts.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

The mayor goes on to quote Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” before sharing the story of an African-American friend who asked how he might explain to his young daughter “why [Lee] stands atop our beautiful city.”

To literally put the confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.

History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.

Before closing with that beautiful passage from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Mayor Landrieu offers the following:

So before we part let us again state the truth clearly.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.

As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.

As I said yesterday, I can’t think of a better way to start the new school year if you are teaching the Civil War or Civil War memory in the Fall. There is so much to unpack here, but I found myself nodding in agreement throughout much of it, not necessarily as a justification for removal, but in terms of its appreciation of how the myth of the Lost Cause has for so long blinded us from fully recognizing that the Confederacy was not a benign experiment led by gallant Christian gentleman.

The Confederacy rejected the trend in the western hemisphere away from slavery to embracing it as its very foundation.

27 comments add yours

  1. What superb speech. Landrieu had not really been on my radar before, but I agree that this its a watershed moment.

  2. Wow!!!
    For a white southern politician to give a speech like that is amazing. I enjoyed his bluntness when he talked about the “Lost Cause Cult” he seems like he is challenging his detractors to prove him wrong. It appears that the Mayor wanted to give this speech for a long time, and he wants the debate to continue.

  3. It was a great speech, and a perfect explanation of why the removal was necessary. I recently started following you on Twitter and find myself nodding my head, but I often feel like I am in the minority here in Chattanooga. One thing I have been trying to explain to people here is that Intent matters. I don’t feel like the Confederate monuments at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield Park should be removed, because, unlike the New Orleans monuments, these were erected in a cooperative effort in a spirit of reconciliation and they serve to paint a picture of the troop locations on the field of battle. Thoughts?

  4. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

    I will never agree with this. I’ve debated this in other comments so I won’t repeat myself, but I do not consider them traitors. That’s one bit of Lost Cause I refuse to let go of. They fought for their home states, which will always be “patriot” enough for me.

    I don’t like this new trend in historical memory. We used to view the Civil War as “brother against brother,” and “Americans against Americans.” Now it’s seen more as “Americans versus the slave owners.” The south is being viewed more like ISIS than “brothers,” and that bothers me.

    The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to […] subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery.

    Okay, he’s got me there. Touche.

    I think one problem with the Lost Cause is that it focuses on the CAUSE and not the EFFECT. Any proposed cause for secession does not change the main effect: it would have created a nation founded on preserving and perpetuating slavery. In this regard, even the soldiers who genuinely fought for their homes are implicated.

    It took me a while to see it this way … but when I separated cause from effect, the light dawned.

    • As the great granddaughter of one of Gen. Forrest’s brigade, and one who has read the letters between my ancestor and his wife and cousins, I have a sort of inside view of what some of those “Christian gentlemen” were carrying in their minds as motive for their behavior. Their view (narrow as it was, and unjust) was that they were fighting for their families and their rights to live according to their traditions and history. So ingrained was that view that it wasn’t until one of the letters from his wife suggested her husband might need to “whip” Tom, who was delivering a new horse to him (if it arrived tardily), that it entered my head that that family were not simple farmers, but also slave owners. Reared in the North and educated by Quakers, I found it difficult to absorb this fact. An evil cause so long lost should certainly not be disguised nor forgotten. However, the motives for remembering a great deal of personal heroism should not be undervalued either. As the King said, “‘Tis a puzzlement.”

      • “An evil cause so long lost should certainly not be disguised nor forgotten. However, the motives for remembering a great deal of personal heroism should not be undervalued either. As the King said, ‘Tis a puzzlement.'”

        Ain’t none if this, simple.

    • “They fought for their home states, which will always be ‘patriot’ enough for me.”

      I have lived in the same state since I was a child – nearly 3 decades. I have never owed the slightest allegiance to that state. Not one drop for one second. Any allegiance I owe to a political entity is to the United States of America – not my neighborhood, not my municipality, not my county, not my state, not my region.

      • But that’s pretty much a result of the Civil War, as the southern states did put state before country. Even today I see remnants of that here in Chattanooga, where almost everyone, regardless of whether or where they actually attended college, is a Tennessee football fan. I would bet that many people here would still put state before country.

        • The Tennessee Volunteers are a college football team, not a state or any other political entity. Pride is a local sports team is, pardon the pun, a different ballgame.

          • It is, but it’s evidence of a larger loyalty. I see state flags much more in the South than in other parts of the country, and there’s a constant political push against federal “interference” in state affairs. I’m with you: I consider myself far more American than Tennessean, but I’m not the typical white male Tennessean either.

      • Any allegiance I owe to a political entity is to the United States of America – not my neighborhood, not my municipality, not my county, not my state, not my region.

        In the present day context, I would agree with you. But only because modern culture has homogenized our society. My ancestors in NC hardly even went to Raleigh, much less DC or New York. Wilkes County (or Tyrell, on my grandmother’s side) was the only world they knew, and it was under attack.

        My Patrick great-great-grandfather was a 17 year old partisan ranger, who turned 18 three days before going to the Point Lookout prison camp in Maryland. He was practically a child, so I doubt politics even mattered that much to him. His “company” was just a loose group of local men fighting the occupation. I don’t even think they were fighting for their state, more like their county or just their farms.

        That said, I’m not defending white supremacy or even the monuments. If I have a cause, it’s that I want the Confederates to be remembered as complex and individual human beings; sympathetic on an individual level, even if their national cause was repugnant.

  5. Great speech! It is nice to hear a thoughtful and coherent speech on such a critical issue. Sadly, it probably fell on too many deaf ears.

  6. To those put off by the bluntness of Landrieu’s comments, it should be noted that he’s not being any more blunt in his condemnation of the Confederacy than the Confederate states, as well as leaders like Alexander Stephens, were in their defense of it. If you don’t believe me, read the state declarations of secession, Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech,” etc.

    • Mayor Landrieu quoted directly from the Stephens speech in his address.

      • Mayor Landrieu quoted directly from the Stephens speech in his address.

        Which annoys me a bit. The Cornerstone Address is an interesting artifact of historical thought, but it was NOT an official Government document.

        It was delivered off the cuff, transcribed in haste (probably shorthand) and only sloppily edited by Stephens who did not get to see the text again before it was published. The subtle nuances of his words are completely lost, leaving only the ‘broad strokes.’

        Stephens wrote more about this later: “I alluded not to the principles of the new Government on this subject, but to public sentiment in regard to these principles. The status of the African race in the new Constitution was left just where it was in the old.” In other words, the Confederacy was only upholding what already existed in America. The CSA was a natural, predictable (even expected) outgrowth of US Constitutional flaws. Confederate sins are American sins. Period.

        It’s a lazy way to win the argument without thinking too hard: Quote the Cornerstone Speech, drop the mike.

        • There is absolutely nothing unusual about the content of Stephens’s speech in 1861. In fact, it is a fairly moderate example of the fears of the Republican administration and the hopes of the Confederacy as a slaveholding nation. I highly recommend reading Charles Dew’s book *Apostles of Disunion.*

          Your latter passage from Stephen is postwar and must be understood in the context of slavery’s abolition.

          • There is absolutely nothing unusual about the content of Stephens’s speech in 1861.

            You’re misunderstanding me. I agree that it was nothing unusual. That’s why I called it an “artifact of historical thought,” because everyone from Robert E. Lee to William Lamb expressed similar sentiments.

            My thesis is that the Confederacy was a natural consequence of compromise and hypocrisy woven into the entire foundation of the country. They weren’t fighting to “destroy the country” as Landrieu alleges …. they were preserving it’s original form, while the rest of the country was evolving.

            Landrieu peppers his speech with American patriotic cliches and paraphrasing the declaration of Independence, while calling the Confederacy a “4-year brief historical aberration.” To the uninformed audience member, it sounds like the USA was founded on equal rights and the Confederacy made an unsuccessful bid to alter it.

            To be clear: I’m NOT saying that Landrieu was wrong about the Confederate cause. I’m saying that he tacitly exonerates the United States and downplays the nation’s inherit flaws which led to the Confederacy. A better speech would take the criticism all the way back to 1789 and acknowledge that America is a work-in-progress with a Constitution that has required multiple amendments and Supreme Court rulings in the continual quest for social justice.

            But that could cost him whatever voters he has left.

            • They weren’t fighting to “destroy the country” as Landrieu alleges …. they were preserving it’s original form, while the rest of the country was evolving.

              Certainly they believed that, but why are we under any obligation to agree with such a view. I certainly do not.

              To the uninformed audience member, it sounds like the USA was founded on equal rights and the Confederacy made an unsuccessful bid to alter it.

              I suspect that Landrieu’s United States extends from 1787 to today. He doesn’t have to believe something as naive as the U.S. was founded on “equal rights” to argue that the Confederacy stood to turn the concept on its head entirely.

              I’m saying that he tacitly exonerates the United States and downplays the nation’s inherit flaws which led to the Confederacy.

              That is certainly not how I understood his speech. His entire speech was built around the theme of the U.S. as a work-in-progress and New Orleans as an important piece of that puzzle.

            • Certainly they believed that, but why are we under any obligation to agree with such a view. I certainly do not.

              I’m at a loss to understand what you disagree with. The US was founded with a Constitution that allowed slavery. The Northern states gradually abolished it, and tried to limit its expansion into the West. The South was terrified that would lead to abolition and seceded to maintain the status quo.

              Ergo, I view the Confederacy as a reactionary conservative movement not that different from modern Trump supporters. They tried to prevent change.

  7. Mitch sounded like he was running for President to me. He was playing to a national rather than a local audience.

    • Do you believe that this particular view resonates across the country? I have my doubts.

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