SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Federal court rulings have cleared the way for New Orleans to remove three public statues of Confederate icons and a monument to a Reconstruction era white supremacist uprising. The mayor and the city council say the monuments don't reflect what New Orleans stands for today. The preservationists who want to keep those statues say they're part of New Orleans' extraordinary history. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, joins us. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for being with us.
MITCH LANDRIEU: It's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: You first called for these monuments to come down in the summer of 2015 after the tragic killings at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Why is it important to take down statues that probably spend a lot of time covered in pigeon droppings anyway?
LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, even though I made the call after the Charleston shootings, we began thinking about this some time significantly before that because as we have rebuilt the city post-Katrina, we decided that we were going to build the city back the way it should have always been and not the way that it had been developed over time. And just to put an exclamation point on this - these monuments were not put up really to revere any one of those three men. It was put up by groups who explicitly said they work (ph) for the cult of the Lost Cause.
And so the thought of the people of the city - and I share this thought - is that as we rebuild the city of New Orleans, we ought to rebuild it in a way that reflects our whole history, that's inviting and that it's open and not one that continues to cast shadows over a group of people where the message is still sent that, look, we didn't even think that you were fully formed human persons and we think that the Confederacy was the right way to govern America. Those messages were wrong then, and they're wrong now.
SIMON: We'll just note the three statues we're talking about - Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard. Well, let me ask you about Robert E. Lee. As I don't have to tell you, he's often admired today by historians who say that, look, when the war was over, he accepted defeat, he welcomed African-Americans into his church and wound up doing a lot of good for the United States.
LANDRIEU: Well, that may be true. And then somebody should put a statue up for him at the right place in the right time and put that story in context. That's different from him sitting in one of the most prominent squares honoring him for the fact that he led an army against the United States of America for the purposes of telling African-Americans that they were less than human. That's why that statue's there.
SIMON: Let me ask you a question that's a little more speculative, but I ask you as someone who loves your city - as much as someone who happens to be the mayor now - I gather the old New Orleans slave market is now the site of a hotel. I mean, should that be?
LANDRIEU: Well, that's a very good point. When people say we should remember our history, for people who really believe that, you would expect some of those historical societies that have come forward and say listen, Mr. Mayor, here's a way to remember all of our march toward freedom as American citizens. And yeah, here's a specific piece of property where more people were sold into slavery, and we'd like you to put a plaque up to commemorate it. Or these are the markets, you know, this is the place where jazz was formed or this is where lynchings took place or this is where the individuals that migrated to us from Germany or the German coast were, and we really want to curate the city appropriately and, by the way, we can't forget the Confederacy. That's one argument, but that's not the argument that's going on in the city. The argument is we have these Confederate monuments, and they're really the only ones up that commemorate our history as though that's really the story of New Orleans, and it's not.
SIMON: I gather that when you took the first bids for this project last winter some contractors were threatened; one even had his car burned.
LANDRIEU: Yeah, it was horrible. I mean, and these things - a lot of that has gone on. When the - you know, the first time we put the bids out, they received death threats. His car was burned and they allege that it was related to this, so there's been a lot of intimidation. It hasn't been unlike - although it hasn't been nearly as bad as what's happened in the '60s. There's a huge chilling factor in these kinds of discussions when you get around to issues like that. That's been the most disappointing part of this whole thing. It didn't necessarily have to be that way. But as I've said many times on the issue of race, you can't go around it. You can't go over it. You can't go under it. You just got to go through it. And we've taken the very hard path of trying to get from a bad place to a better place, and hopefully we'll be able to get there.
SIMON: The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.
LANDRIEU: Thank you, sir. Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.