Monuments men: It was never about a statue, say Landrieu and Bellamy

Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Councilor Wes Bellamy discuss how Confederate statues are symbols of institutional racism with which this country still grapples.
Staff photo Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Councilor Wes Bellamy discuss how Confederate statues are symbols of institutional racism with which this country still grapples. Staff photo

Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy have a lot in common. They’re both Southerners who, as elected officials, have gotten death threats for daring to say it’s time for Confederate monuments to go.

And they’ve both written books on the topic, which brought them to the same Jefferson School African American Heritage Center stage March 20 for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

Bellamy, who signaled he was going to run for a second term on City Council, talked about the toll his 2016 call to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee has taken on him and his family. His therapist suggested he write about it, and he wrote what became Monumental: It Was Never about a Statue to tell his side of the story and get it off his chest, with little concern about whether it ever got published.

“Deep down I was hurting,” he says.

A lot of people blamed him for bringing white supremacists to Charlottesville, he says. He had to grow up publicly following what he calls “Tweetgate,” when earlier offensive tweets were unearthed and he lost his job with Albemarle schools. And there was the unrelenting stream of “vile” threats.

“If it was about a statue, people wouldn’t tell me they’re going to hang me from a tree or harm my wife and children,” he says.

Landrieu says he also got hate mail, typically in a white envelope with red ink, that his wife hid from him.

The statue issue is “about race in America,” he says. “It’s about institutional racism.”

Landrieu, who wrote In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, never thought too much about the Confederate monuments when he was growing up in the Big Easy. Then a friend, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, “popped” him on the head and asked, “Have you looked at it from my perspective?”

In May 2017, Landrieu made a landmark speech about his decision to remove four Confederate statues. In Charlottesville, he referred to one of its points, a scenario in which an African American parent has to answer a child’s question about a statue of Lee, in which the girl asks, “Wasn’t that the side that wanted to keep me a slave?”

As Southerner and as a white man, Landrieu holds no truck with the “heritage not hate” argument often posited by Lost Cause adherents. He lists historic facts that some whites have a hard time with.

“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity,” he says. The Civil War “was fought for the cause of slavery.” And that needs to be acknowledged to get to the point where the country can heal, he says.

Even though progress has been made, there are a lot of people in the country who are afraid and there’s a lot of dehumanization. “Donald Trump is not the cause of it but he’s an accelerant,” says Landrieu. “White nationalism and white supremacy are having a field day,”

Bellamy expounded on why he’s called on Governor Ralph Northam, “a personal friend,” to resign. “It’s not his place to believe he can lead a discussion about race and equity after what has transpired.”

The worst for Bellamy was the day after Northam apologized for wearing blackface, when he attempted to moonwalk. Northam didn’t understand how offensive and degrading minstrel shows are, says Bellamy. And when Northam followed the press conference by calling the first African slaves “indentured servants,” says Bellamy, “That shows me you don’t get it.”

He did suggest ways the governor could use his position and privilege to redeem himself: by funding “historically underfunded” black colleges, by reforming marijuana laws and the criminal justice system, and by talking to his conservative friends in the General Assembly “who block the legislation we need to move the statues.”

Those, notes Landrieu, are “institutional racism.”

While Landrieu called for having those painful conversations on race, Bellamy seemed talked out when such engagement results in no action. “You shed a couple of tears and you go home.” he says of those privileged to live in nice homes while most in poverty are black and don’t have the same luxuries. “That is not equity,” he says. “I’m the bad guy for saying that.”

Both men believe it’s necessary to repair the damage that’s been done by racism. “There can be no repair and reconciliation without the redistribution of resources,” says Bellamy. “If you mess something up, you fix it.”

He also touched on civility, which he describes as “almost synonymous with comfortable.” People were yelling at City Council meetings because they’ve been ignored for years and it was an expression of their rage, says Bellamy.

He thinks that’s had an effect. “We got your attention,” he says. More resources have been allocated to affordable housing and the county banned Confederate images in schools. “You think that came from being civil?” he asks. “Pffft.”

With the Democratic primary deadline looming March 28, Bellamy says he’s still debating whether to run again for City Council, but indicated he was likely to because to change policy, “the best way to do that is through elected office.”