It has been a really difficult couple of weeks. And I think for those of us in the social change sector — the sector that works for equity, justice, compassion, inclusion, civility — these days have been particularly challenging. The events in Charlottesville have made obvious that there is so much work to do, and in fact, battles that we thought we had made real progress on (against Nazi-ism, anti-semitism, rampant racism) are far from over.
But if there is any silver lining to the events of the past weeks, it is perhaps that America is beginning to reckon with its past. One thing that has brought me solace during this time is Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu’s beautiful speech from last May where he described why he led an effort to remove several confederate monuments in New Orleans. (An effort, by the way, that came out of an interesting –and now expanding — philanthropic experiment in bringing community together to have open, honest conversations).
Landrieu gave a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we must take down these monuments. As he put it:
“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…
[A] friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.”
Particularly in these times when leaders are in such short supply, I find Mitch Landrieu’s leadership and eloquent arguments inspiring.
He sees in this challenging moment an opportunity for Americans to come together, recognize our past, and create together a more just, inclusive and equitable future, as he described:
“Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians…A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place. We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves…if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story? We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in, all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.”
As any good leader does, Mitch Landrieu helps us rise above division, turmoil, and adversity and see a new, better path. Perhaps what we are experiencing in America right now — the vitriol, the divisiveness — is an opportunity for us to confront our past and more consciously and inclusively create our future.
Photo Credit: Workers securing straps to the Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle prior to it being removed from atop the column, May 19, 2017, Infrogmation of New Orleans.