NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office recruited filmmaker Ken Burns, known for his Civil War documentary, to write a statement supporting Landrieu’s effort to remove four pro-Confederate monuments in the days leading up to the key City Council vote in December 2015, according to emails reviewed by WWL-TV.
Among hundreds of emails about the monuments sent to Landrieu’s public email accounts in 2015, WWL-TV found an exchange between Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni and Burns’ publicist, Joe DePlasco, as the administration worked to craft a public-relations campaign favorable to the controversial plan.
Burns gained worldwide acclaim for his 11-hour documentary “The Civil War,” which first aired on PBS in 1990 and was remastered and re-aired in September 2015, just as debate heated up about New Orleans’ plans to remove monuments to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the Battle of Liberty Place, a post-Civil War uprising by white supremacists against the integrated police force.
Berni, Landrieu’s chief aide for external affairs, reached out to Burns’ publicist on Dec. 11, 2015, six days before the City Council was scheduled to declare the four monuments nuisances and officially approve their removal.
“A few months back, Mayor Landrieu spoke to Ken Burns about writing something for a New Orleans newspaper on our efforts to move Confederate monuments from prominent public spaces to museums or a park where they can be put into proper context,” Berni began his email, before asking if Burns could write something backing a City Council vote in favor of removal.
“I know they spoke about it and Ken suggested a joint op-ed with Wynton,” DePlasco responded, referring to jazz great and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, whom Landrieu often has credited with convincing him the statues needed to be removed.
“Unfortunately, our timing is somewhat tight,” Berni wrote DePlasco on Dec. 13, four days before the vote. “The vote has been scheduled for Thursday somewhat unexpectedly so we'd be looking to have something run Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. Wynton is currently working on something. Do you think Ken would be open to something even like a letter to editor?”
DePlasco suggested having his client do an interview with Dave Walker, then The Times-Picayune’s television writer. Berni agreed to that and sent over a list of talking points for Burns to consider, mostly focused on the idea that the monuments represented “the Cult of the Lost Cause.”
Berni backed up the assertion by quoting from the National Register of Historic Places: “Although Robert E. Lee was the centerpiece of the cult, another integral component was the veneration of other Civil War generals.”
Two days before the vote DePlasco wrote to Berni and said he “struck out in terms of getting someone there to speak to Ken.” Instead, he sent Berni a statement to be read at the City Council, urging the council members to vote for removal of all four monuments. In part, it read: “I believe there is nothing more important than discussing our history. It is my art form. It is what I do.
“But in doing that we must also recognize that history is real. Symbols matter. We should all study the Civil War, as we should the unique local histories of every part of our country. But that does not mean we should celebrate the Civil War. It was a war fought over slavery. And it was a war that thankfully ended slavery.
“The confederate statues that many of us would like removed also have a history. They were erected in an effort to find a justification for the war, a justification to maintain a way of life that included the bondage of men, women and children based on race.”
The council voted 6-1 on Dec. 17, 2015, to declare the monuments nuisances. They were removed in April and May 2017.