Editor’s Note: A guest post by James Hartman, a political consultant, author and speaker who lives in Mandeville with a weekend home, for now, in New Orleans.
This could have been different.
Two years ago, a gunman whose name is not worth mentioning opened fire on worshipers in an African-American church in Charleston, SC. A nation responded, and both Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican Governor Nikki Haley reacted, in my opinion, with stellar leadership.
Having attended high school in Columbia, South Carolina, after moving there from suburban Washington, DC, I was shocked at the lack of minority inclusion and at the presence of the Confederate Flag atop the State Capitol. That was in the mid-1980s. Thirty years later, Gov. Haley took action, both as a politician and a socially responsible adult, by calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the Capitol grounds.
That same summer, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu began his quest for the removal of Confederate monuments in our state’s most iconic city.
Here’s what the mayor should have said:
“My fellow New Orleanians, I know you share my belief that our city is a place of openness and opportunity for everyone. There are no exceptions. The tragedy in South Carolina has made me embarrassingly aware that the Crescent City still boasts monuments – very prominent monuments – to those who defended slavery and to the post-Civil War oppression that stifled our culture and our spirit.
“It is my opinion that these reminders of our dark past should be removed from public display, but never from our history – because we must remember where we came from and how far we’ve come – and acknowledge how far we have yet to go.
“It is not unrelated to say that we have minority communities within our city who live in poverty, in bare subsistence, in oppression. It is my job and my duty as mayor to improve those conditions. Removing statues won’t do it. You will. We will. Together.
“Right now, I’m working within City Hall to acquire land in Central City to erect a museum, and I’m asking the many benefactors and business leaders of New Orleans to contribute. I’m seeking to build a New Orleans History Museum, not only to celebrate our wonderful and diverse culture but to remember who we once were and who we are. Just as the African-American History Museum in Washington commemorates not just the contributions of African-Americans to our culture but the history of slavery and oppression in our nation, our museum will not celebrate our collective sins but will memorialize them so we never, ever forget that we were once a divided city.
“In coming weeks, I’m not only toing to reach out to those donors, but I’m going to start the process of putting the monuments to Robert E. Lee., P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis in a place of memory, not prominence. I’m also going to host a series of town hall meetings to see that you think should occupy those spaces. I don’t want to erase history. In fact, I want to add to our historical value, adding more memorials to Dr. Martin Luther King, T.J. Smith, and others who made us the unique and diverse city we are.”
That’s what a leader would have said. That’s not what we got. The result has been a divisiveness unseen in the modern history of our city and our broader community. We’ve seen marches and protests and legal battles that have cost the city many thousands of dollars in police overtime and disrupted commerce. We’ve seen threats against public officials. We’ve seen state legislation attempting to interfere with a local issue. If there is an upside to Landrieu’s intentional imbroglio, it is that thinly veiled racism has been more fully exposed. We have a long way to go, but removing statues isn’t going to do it.
I came to New Orleans in 1988 to attend college. I moved to the Northshore seven years later, not because I wanted to but because a job required it. Since 2009, I have kept an apartment downtown for occasional convenience, proximity to my church, and the fun of weekends and holidays. But I’ve had enough.
I honestly don’t care about the monuments. I don’t care if Lee Circle is renamed after Louis Armstrong, and I won’t drive around it any differently. I would celebrate if a statue to Martin Luther King were erected somewhere prominently in the city instead of in the somewhat obscure location it occupies now. What I do care about is having leaders who think through things. I care about elected officials who ponder unintended consequences before they make kneejerk reactions or politically motivated decisions, particularly those that create conflict, chaos and crisis. (One need only look at the current White House to observe these foibles writ large.) I do care about safety, for myself and my fellow citizens. I care about peace, equality, and openness. I care about opportunity and prosperity.
So, yes, I’ll be saying goodbye to my New Orleans abode this summer and New Orleans will be saying goodbye to my tax dollars. I’m saying goodbye to interminable traffic problems, dangerous infrastructure, and to an understaffed Police Department that gets blamed for everything. I’m not boycotting. I’m just not living there anymore, even just on weekends. My frustration is not about the removal of monuments. It’s about a level of ineptitude that is utterly unprecedented and incomprehensible – and remember, I was here for Mayors Barthelemy, Morial and Nagin, so I’ve seen and lived under City Hall clownery before. My frustration isn’t about politics, crime, or even corruption, and it’s certainly not about statues – two of which I’d never even heard of until two years ago. It’s none of that. It’s about the absence of sensible leadership. It’s about misplaced priorities. It’s about grandstanding when real lives are at stake and real problems need solving.
Enjoy your last year in office, Mayor Landrieu. May it be your last year in office anywhere, ever. You may be a masterful politician, but a leader you are not.