New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will receive the 2018 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his role in removing four Confederate monuments in New Orleans “while offering candid, clear and compassionate reflections on the moment and its place in history.”
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation released a press statement making the announcement in late March. The award will be presented by President Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, at a ceremony on May 20, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
“Mayor Landrieu turned a difficult and divisive issue into an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history and to recommit ourselves to our founding principles of equality and justice. The Mayor explained what the monuments represent – a dark chapter in our history that should neither be forgotten, misunderstood nor glorified,” Schlossberg said in the statement. “In a year marked by continued racial injustice, in a moment of misguided national leadership and heightened division, Mayor Landrieu’s courage stands out brightly as an affirmative step in the right direction. President Kennedy believed that at its best, politics was a noble profession – Mayor Landrieu is living proof of that bold proposition.”
A recurring issue debated off and on in New Orleans for more nearly 40 years, removing symbols of the confederacy and White supremacy once again pushed to the forefront of local politics and public discourse nearly three years ago after the killing of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by White supremacist Dylann Roof.
In addition to Mayor Landrieu and other city and community leaders, including Take ‘Em Down NOLA—a coalition of organizations and citizens that advocated for the monuments’ removal—pushed for an ordinance declaring statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and the monument to the Battle at Liberty Place nuisances that needed to come down.
The New Orleans City Council passed the ordinance in December 2015. It would take another nearly year and half of heated debated and legal wrangling marked by protests, threats and incidents of violence before a federal court ruling paved the way to for the actual removal of the monuments, which under Landrieu’s direction began to come down under the cover of night and without much advance notice on April 24, with the removal of the Battle of Liberty Place monument.
On May 19, 2017, the last statue—a towering monument to confederate general Robert E. Lee that once was a distinct figure in the city’s skyline—came down.
That same day, Mayor Landrieu delivered a speech from Gallier Hall that reverberated across the nation.
He said, “the historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal – through monuments and through other means – to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for . . . I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.”
Landrieu received widespread praise after that speech and about a month later was elected to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. While there are still many on the other side of the debate who decry Landrieu’s role in the monuments removal, the whole deal has ultimately been a win for the Mayor and the city—showcasing New Orleans as a progressive Southern in the 21st Century.
Mayor Landrieu has made the rounds on national shows, including CBS’ 60 Minutes and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, where he discussed the removal of the monuments and his new book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, which was released on March 20.
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation created the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service, and to celebrate his May 29th birthday. The award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. senators who risked their careers, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, by taking principled stands for unpopular positions
Past recipients include former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush; U.S. Rep. John Lewis; former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; U.S. Sen. John McCain; Liberian peace activist and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee; and former California State Sen. and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Recipients of the award are selected by a 15-member bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders.