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How New Orleans’ Mayor Was Inspired to Take Down Confederate Monuments by a Jazz Great

Mitch Landrieu explains how a question from old friend Wynton Marsalis spurred his reckoning with the city’s monuments on National Geographic’s America Inside Out with Katie Couric.

Mitch Landrieu Explains Why Confederate Monuments Needed to Come Down
National Geographic Channel
“Re-Righting History”, the premiere episode of America Inside Out with Katie Couric , airs Wednesday, April 11 at 10PM, 9C.

Sometimes it takes an old friend to help you see things in a new light.

New Orleans natives Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz musician, and Mitch Landrieu, mayor of the city since 2010, have been friends since playing the trumpet together in high school. One day when discussing New Orleans’ 2018 tricentennial celebrations, Marsalis raised the topic of Confederate statues, which have recently ignited passionate—and sometimes violent—national debate. [Learn why the U.S. Capitol still hosts Confederate memorials.]

“Wynton said to me one morning, ‘I want you to think about something,’” recalls Landrieu in a conversation with Katie Couric as part of Couric’s six-part documentary series, America Inside Out, which discusses the controversial issues confronting today’s America. [Read Couric’s emotional reaction to the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

That conversation prompted Landrieu to “put [himself] into somebody else’s shoes”—namely, those of African Americans and others who view Confederate statues as hate symbols.

In New Orleans, the 80-plus-foot monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee took center stage. Though it was dedicated in 1884, many other Confederate memorials were constructed in the early twentieth century to reinforce Jim Crow laws, and later became rallying points in opposition to African American civil rights movements. [Learn why the Confederate flag made a 20th-century comeback.]

“The people who lost [the Civil War] decided to put these statues up to send a message to people just like Wynton, that you’re lesser than [us],” Landrieu tells Couric.

After the 2015 murder of nine African American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, Landrieu was decided: "We can't wait anymore." And as hate crimes making national headlines in 2017 prompted other states to remove Confederate monuments, the New Orleans city council voted to remove four Confederate monuments—including the statue of Lee.

On May 19, 2017, Landrieu oversaw the removal of Lee's statue from its column in downtown New Orleans.

“These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy,” he said in a speech that day. “Ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”