TL;DR: Mitch Landrieu’s 2017 speech as Mayor of New Orleans addressed the removal of Confederate monuments as a necessary step to confront and correct historical narratives that glorify racism and division, promoting a more inclusive future.

So What? The speech exemplifies how facing historical truths and fostering empathy can help heal divisions, offering a blueprint for addressing contentious issues that unite rather than divide communities.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments, delivered on May 19, 2017, is widely regarded as a significant and eloquent commentary on race relations in the United States.

Landrieu addressed the removal of the monuments, which included statues of Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, as not just an aesthetic action but a profound moral and societal statement.

He articulated that the statues were not simply historical artifacts but symbols that represented the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” a narrative that he argued was rooted in white supremacy.

One of the most poignant parts of his speech was his appeal to empathy and unity. He asked listeners to consider these monuments from the perspective of an African-American mother or child who would walk past them daily. By posing this scenario, he urged people to confront the reality of a society where not all citizens can feel included or respected.

Landrieu’s speech received considerable attention and praise for its directness, historical context, and appeal to communal identification. Here’s what great communicators can learn.

Challenge Narratives

For many, the removal of Confederate soldiers reopens old wounds around the Civil War. These soldiers are still honored by many, including relatives and descendents living in New Orleans.

Landrieu doesn’t mince words, however, and his frankness ensures that his position is clear. He’s well-versed on the topic. This is not a fluff speech meant to soothe, but a frank discussion of historical events.

Specifically, he talks about the fact that while the Confederacy is a part of our history, there is also a long history of muddying what that nation stood for:

“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.”

This is a pretty shocking and combative stance that would surely prickle the feathers of some people. But his point was to show that these monuments don’t just represent a history, but a deep division predicated on race.

He then says:

“Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears… 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.”

The point he makes is that the monuments were built, in part, to hide certain parts of history, one that denied the established experiences of the black men and women who found themselves free.

This can seem combative, but sometimes frankness is appropriate and necessary. It sets the tone for an interaction and ensures clarity.

Additionally, while frankness can seem adversarial, in this case, Landrieu isn’t. He’s able to acknowledge that there are differences of opinion while still holding on to his convictions:

“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present and a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely, we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”

Encourage Listeners to See the Other Side

Landrieu’s challenge, however, is that he might turn off people who are married to the history represented in those statues. They may see it as a heritage rather than hate. They don’t necessarily see the issue because it is part of their national identity.

Landrieu can recognize this and mobilize a contrast between those who might carry this notion of heritage and those for whom that heritage wasn’t allowed:

“Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us.”

The core of identification is to place the audience in someone else’s shoes. In this case, it’s all about saying that not everyone shares the same experience of these monuments and understanding that is a crucial reason for taking them down. Healing cannot happen without some sort of understanding of the toll it took on the oppressed.

He then takes this a step further by asking the audience to identify with the current diversity of New Orleans and the modern-day heroes that live there:

“We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves — at this point in our history — after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe and after the tornado — if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces… would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?”

And then, coming to a close, he draws the audience together as a community by appealing to their diversity and not their heritage that directly opposed that diversity:

“Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do…

All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it! Out of many we are one — and we really do love it! And yet, we still seem to find so many excuses for not doing the right thing.”

Marketer’s Takeaway

We can learn a lot about how to address our audiences fairly and empathetically:

  • Have a Perspective: While marketing content typically threads a fine line in perspective, it’s also OK for brands to have stances on particular issues that align with their vision and goals.
  • Understand Empathy: Empathy and pathos are prime factors in how we communicate with others, and they can be powerful tools for bringing people together.
  • Bring People Back Together: Always work toward joining people in ideas, expectations, and values. In the words of Landrieu: “Indivisibility is our essence.”

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