A son of the Deep South who removed icons of the Confederacy from his city was honored as politically courageous Sunday night at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu was chosen to receive this year’s John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for spearheading the removal of four Confederate monuments in his city.
The award, established by members of the Kennedy family to honor JFK after his 1963 assassination, recognizes and celebrates “the quality of political courage that he admired most,” according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Landrieu was elected New Orleans mayor in 2010 and left that office earlier this month. During his second term, in 2015, he pushed a proposal calling for the removal of statues depicting Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, and one dedicated to those who opposed Reconstruction.
Landrieu was presented with the award Sunday night at the Dorchester library and museum.
Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, told the crowd of about 300, “Mitch Landrieu has shown us what needs to be done — now it is up to us to make sure we do it.”
Before the award ceremony, Landrieu said the monuments were not a good reflection of “what the soul of the city was.”
The monuments, he said, were a symbol of “a much deeper problem that the country has always had on race.”
“When a piece of wood or metal is put up with the purpose of communicating to blacks or Hispanics that they’re not welcome or that they’re less than, I think that’s not a debate that can win in the 21st century,” he said. “I think that’s wrong.”
Landrieu signed a proposal calling for the removal of the Confederate tributes six months after Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, killed nine black parishioners at a church basement Bible study in Charleston, S.C.
“When the killings took place in Charleston it was pretty clear that we had to do something significant to move forward,” said Landrieu Sunday night.
The country, he said, has a long way to go on race.
“We don’t really talk to each other well in America about the issue of race,” he said. “We tend to talk around it, not go through it.”
His decision to remove the monuments was met with resistance. One group collected 31,000 signatures opposing the removal of the Confederate monuments. Some demonstrators waved Confederate flags near the statue of Jefferson Davis. When workers took down an obelisk honoring a violent uprising in 1874 by white people who were against integration of the city’s police force and those who governed Louisiana, they wore flak jackets and scarves to conceal their identities, The New York Times reported. The monument had at times been used as a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan.
Some contractors who signed up to remove the statues received death threats, and one of them had his car fire-bombed, according to the JFK library.
Last year, after the last of the city’s Confederate monuments was removed, Landrieu gave an unflinching assessment of what they represented.
“These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for,” he said.
Sunday night, Landrieu echoed his past statements, telling the crowd that to “literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.”
The fight over the monuments, he said, was about “confronting and correcting the very ideas and attitudes that allowed them to be erected in the first place.”
”Americans do not need to hold each other down or push each other away to claim their fair share of the American dream,” he said. “There is no need to feel afraid or threatened by those who look different than you.”
A heated debate over Confederate statues has risen across the country in recent years. In August 2017, neo-Nazis and white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., at a rally that turned deadly. In the immediate aftermath of that violence, about 50 Confederate monuments around the US were removed or vandalized or both.
The Kennedy award was created by the John F. Kennedy Foundation in 1989 to honor its namesake’s “commitment and contribution to public service” and to celebrate the Massachusetts native son’s birthday. It’s presented annually to “public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences,” according to the JFK library. The award is named after Kennedy’s 1957 book that won a Pulitzer Prize.
Previous recipients of the award include former presidents Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford, US Senator John McCain, former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
Among this year’s guests at this year’s award ceremony included Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Bank of America vice chairman Anne Finucane, US Senator Edward Markey, US Representative Joe Kennedy III, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.Matt Rocheleau of the Globe staff contributed to this report and material from The New York Times was used in it. Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.