Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse
At the very end of a ceremony this morning celebrating the one-year anniversary of Welcome Table New Orleans, a forum on race
and a division of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
, Mayor Mitch Landrieu dragged a folding chair to the lip of the stage at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and followed a dozen anecdotes about the history of race in New Orleans with a hypothetical story.
"I began to envision myself as an African-American man driving down the street with my little girl behind me, approaching Lee Circle," the mayor said. "And her saying, 'Hey daddy, that's a really nice statue, what is that? It's so pretty.' I say, ' Well, honey, that's General Lee.'
He improvised the exchange, leaning in toward the audience, his voice soft and theatrical. "And she says, 'Well, who was General Lee?'," he continued. "'Well, he was a great general. He fought in great wars for great things.' 'Well what kind of great wars for great things?' 'Well, the one we know him for is the Civil War.'...'Wow. He fought for me?' 'No, no, no baby, I'm sorry. I wasn't clear with you. He didn't fight for you. He was for the other side.' 'Oh, well why is that there? Is there another circle in the city, that's for me?'
"And you see, right now I can't answer that question, as a dad."
The mayor paused, then said: "So, here's what I think. I think today's the day we start having the discussion about what we're going to put there to celebrate our 300th anniversary."
The audience erupted into applause.
Landrieu said the idea to replace the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle — and to rename the circle entirely — was one that Wynton Marsalis brought to his consciousness in discussions about the city's tricentennial, despite recent debates over America's lingering relationship with symbols of racism like the Confederate Flag, following the violent shooting of nine black people during a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina.
"Because symbols really do matter," Landrieu said. "And symbols should reflect who we really are as a people."
The mayor was quick to add that removing Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle should not be viewed as an attempt to erase history.
"We should never forget our history," he said, "just like we would never ignore the concentration camps in Auschwitz, just like you could never deny that the Confederacy existed... that's not what this is about ... the question that's confronting the country today is whether or not those symbols should be on prominent places of adoration that reflect who we are today as a people. Whether or not those symbols ever really reflected who we are or who we were."
During a press conference following the Welcome Table, when asked about the timeline or how exactly the city would go about replacing the statue and the name of Lee Circle, Landrieu was vague.
"I believe that it will take City Council and mayoral action. ... The first thing we have to do is have a healing conversation and hopefully we can do this not in a divisive way that unites the city," he said. "My best guess is that the forum is going to be anywhere and everywhere as a result of this announcement today. People will be talking about it on street corners, at home. The formal place where that conversation takes place will be in the City Council chambers but I'm hoping that the Tricentennial Commission, which has over 600 people on it, will handle these discussions as well."
As for whether Landrieu would go about changing other controversial street names and statues, like Jefferson Davis Parkway, Landrieu said he was not trying to call for a wholesale change of everything in New Orleans, but that he wants to open the conversation about these places and what they represent.
New Orleans District "E" City Councilmember James Gray told Gambit
that the Lee Circle announcement was "welcome news."
"I think it was something that was going to become an issue," said Gray, "and I think the mayor did what any good leader would do and he got ahead of it...What I think makes sense and what I think the mayor planted that, was let the city...sort of have a contest, have a discussion, about what would be appropriate. I wouldn't want to influence that because I think it can be a great opportunity for the city to have a year-long effort to work on the replacement."
As for a timeline, Landrieusaid he hopes Lee Circle will be renamed sooner rather than later, but definitely before 2018's tricentennial.