Mayor’s Unflinching Honesty About Confederate Monuments Gives Me Hope

I’ve rarely been so moved by a political speech. If you haven’t heard it, don’t miss it.

I refer to the speech on May 19 by Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans. He was speaking about the reasons for his city’s removal of monuments to Confederate generals. (You can read the text, but to get the full emotional impact I recommend watching the video.) You will understand why New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called the speech a masterpiece and noted that Landrieu has been mentioned in a list of potential 2020 presidential candidates.  

As Bruni observes, what makes this speech truly extraordinary in this time of vicious partisanship is that Landrieu makes his point “without vilifying anyone” or mentioning any political party. The speech acknowledges our nation’s dark sins—most dramatically in the brutality of the institution of slavery—with unflinching honesty. At the same time, it communicates a positive vision of a future that we Americans, founded in diversity, are uniquely positioned to create.

Landrieu briefly, but eloquently, summarizes our country’s history of diversity. The lands now identified as the United States were originally populated by diverse tribes, a few of which he names. For most of us it is sufficiently well known that he had no need to mention that they were subsequently dominated, disrupted, and displaced by immigrant peoples of varied races, religions, and cultural ethnicities. Many of these immigrants were themselves driven from their original homes by deprivation, injustice, and brutality. Many continued to experience deprivation, injustice, and brutality in their new homeland, though far from the magnitude of that suffered by the slaves.

As I have demonstrated in much of my own writing, this pattern of suppression and exploitation has been characteristic of most of the dominant human societies of the past 5,000 years. It continues today under the economic system we know as capitalism and is the source of the deep resentment that led to the election victory of a man Landrieu felt no need to mention.

New Orleans has historically had a widely diverse population. It has experienced tense divisions based on that diversity. Yet, Landrieu notes, this diversity has also served as a tremendous source of creativity and cultural richness. It has at times also brought community and unity. That is the vision that so captured my imagination from Landrieu’s presentation.

Landrieu’s speech is open to a variety of interpretations. The common element is that it is evoking an extraordinary public response for a speech by a city mayor—and most of that response is positive. I believe the reaction reflects a deep hunger in this country for honesty about our collective past and for a vision of the rich, creative potential of a society of exceptional racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.

Few among our American ancestors endured hardship and injustice as great as that borne by America’s original people or the slaves brought to this continent in chains, but many endured hardship and injustice, as do many of today’s working class, that no human should at this point in our human history need, or be expected, to endure.

Perhaps by openly recognizing the hardship and injustice that so many—both past and present—endured, we can learn to celebrate the creative possibilities of our diversity even as we recognize the beauty of our common humanity.

As a now global and intensely interdependent species, we humans have a desperate need to transcend the differences that historically have divided us so we may join in common cause to create a world of peace, justice, and environmental health that works for all that it is now within our means to create.

To move beyond the brutality that many of our ancestors bore, and that many among us—though in lesser measure—still endure, we must acknowledge it and recognize, as Landrieu does, the profound wisdom of our national motto: e pluribus unum—out of many we are one.

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