On December 13, outgoing Institute CEO Walter Isaacson sat down with the 2017 winner of the Preston Robert Tisch Award in Civic Leadership, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. They discussed their shared hometown and the unique challenges Landrieu has faced there, like bringing the city back from the devastation of both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. The mayor spoke about rebuilding the school system, the health care system, and the levee system.
Landrieu also talked about growing up in one of New Orleans’s first integrated neighborhoods and being raised by Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, the city’s mayor in the early 1970s who was famous for opening up top City Hall positions to African Americans. “Diversity for New Orleans has always been its strength,” Landrieu said, citing the city’s Spanish and French influences.
Landrieu also discussed the events that led to the removal of Confederate statues from the city’s public spaces. It started with a conversation with New Orleans native and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who asked Landrieu to take down a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee, which led Landrieu on a quest to understand the monument’s significance. He found that it had been put up years after the Civil War by people who wanted to glorify the Confederacy and what it stood for. “If I wanted to build a multicultural city,” Landrieu explained, “I had to think about public spaces. There is a dangerous tendency to rest in a bed of denial on these issues. We have to stop telling historical lies.” Then nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He knew: “Now is the time.” And the statues came down. As Isaacson said of Landrieu, “It is one thing to understand intellectually, but it takes leadership to act on it.”