Moon Landrieu dies; New Orleans mayor led on civil rights

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Moon Landrieu, who faced down segregationists as a young Louisiana state legislator in the 1960s, integrated the New Orleans city government during his transformative years as mayor in the ’70s, and was the patriarch of a Democratic political dynasty, died Sept. 5 at 8:30 a.m. at his family home in New Orleans. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Madeleine Landrieu. He recently had a heart attack.

Mr. Landrieu was the father of Mary Landrieu, a former three-term U.S. senator from Louisiana, and Mitch Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor currently serving under President Biden as senior adviser for the implementation of last year’s $1.2 trillion legislation to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

The elder Landrieu had been the first in his family to enter politics — his parents “had no political power, no money, no nothing,” he once said — and he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Housing and Urban Development secretary from 1979 to 1981. But his legacy rested chiefly on his political career in Louisiana during and after the civil rights movement.

“Despite continuing bitter resistance,” the historian Arnold R. Hirsh once wrote, Mr. Landrieu “saw and brought the future to New Orleans.”

Mr. Landrieu first held elective office as a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, where he was elected in 1960 amid roiling racial tensions. Six years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in public schools with its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Many White parents and politicians intensely resisted the ruling, however, and schools across the South remained unintegrated.

Although he was one of the most junior members of the legislature — he was 29 when he took office — Mr. Landrieu challenged efforts by Gov. Jimmie H. Davis (D) and his segregationist supporters to thwart the integration of the New Orleans public schools. On at least one occasion, Mr. Landrieu was the sole legislator to vote against the governor. He was said to have received death threats.

After a court ordered that integration proceed, federal marshals were dispatched to escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to first grade at the city’s William Frantz Public School on Nov. 14, 1960, as she became one of the first Black students to integrate an elementary school in the South. She endured jeers and threats as she made her way to school in a scene depicted in Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

Lucille Bridges, who stood by daughter Ruby through school desegregation, dies at 86

From 1966 to 1970, Mr. Landrieu served as an at-large member of the New Orleans City Council, where he continued his efforts on behalf of racial equality. His wish, he told the Southern Oral History Program, was to “break down every vestige of racial and religious prejudice in this city.”

After the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, he pushed through a measure that provided further protections against discrimination in public accommodations in New Orleans. Decades before the modern movement to strip Confederate symbols from public places, he successfully argued for the Confederate flag to be removed from the council chambers.

In 1970, with a reported 90 percent of the Black vote as well as the support of many liberal Whites, Mr. Landrieu was elected New Orleans mayor. One of his chief campaign pledges had been to bring more African Americans into the local government and civil service.

“The people who were Black who worked in City Hall were workers on the mop and broom level,” said Norman C. Francis, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom who served for nearly five decades as president of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically Black and Catholic university in the United States. “Moon let it be known that we were going to change that.”

Among other appointments, Mr. Landrieu named as chief administrative officer Terrence R. Duvernay, an African American who later served as deputy HUD secretary in the Clinton administration. When Mr. Landrieu took office in 1970, fewer than 20 percent of city civil service jobs were held by African Americans. By the time he left eight years later, the figure was 43 percent, according to Hirsch’s 1992 volume “Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization.”

“He showed great political courage, moral vision [and] great fortitude in pushing back against those who were against the future,” Lawrence N. Powell, a professor emeritus of Southern history and race relations at Tulane University in New Orleans, said in an interview.

By his account, Mr. Landrieu did not do enough to bring African Americans into the “mainstream of economic life,” although he sought to award more government contracts to minority-owned businesses.

His tenure was not without controversy. The Superdome, the stadium that remade the skyline of New Orleans, opened under his leadership in 1975 at a cost of more than $160 million and amid a cloud of questions about its financing, management and construction.

Some historical preservations opposed Mr. Landrieu’s renovation of the French Market in New Orleans’s French Quarter. But that project, as well as the construction of the river promenade known as the Moon Walk, helped draw tourists to the city.

Decades after leaving office, Mr. Landrieu retained wide respect for his efforts to improve race relations in the city. He used “every inch of his body to change New Orleans with respect to civil rights,” Francis said.

Mitch Landrieu, who served as mayor from 2010 to 2018 and was the first White person to hold the office since his father’s term, presided over the dismantlement of the city’s Confederate monuments. He drew national attention in 2017 with a speech on the matter.

New Orleans mayor: Why I’m taking down my city’s Confederate monuments

“These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy,” Mitch Landrieu declared, “ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

He later described the speech as “the culmination of not only my work but my father’s work.”

Maurice Edwin Landrieu, the younger of two sons, was born in New Orleans on July 23, 1930. His father was employed by the city as what Mr. Landrieu described as a “blue-collar worker.” His mother ran a corner grocery story and later became a real estate agent.

Mr. Landrieu was nicknamed “Moon” as a boy and legally changed his name in 1969 to be listed as “Moon Landrieu” on electoral ballots.

He was a gifted athlete and pitched for the baseball team at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1952 and a law degree in 1954.

He served in the Army before establishing a law practice in 1957. He found an early political mentor in New Orleans Mayor deLesseps S. “Chep” Morrison.

In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Landrieu invested in real estate development projects in New Orleans. During Senate hearings over his nomination as HUD secretary, he faced questions about possible conflicts of interest with his government work but was easily confirmed. Among his priorities as HUD secretary was the revitalization of inner cities.

Mr. Landrieu served for nearly a decade as a judge on the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2000.

In the years after he left public office, Louisiana has turned increasingly Republican. Mary Landrieu, who rose to national prominence as a spokeswoman for her state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was defeated by U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in a runoff in 2014.

Survivors include his wife of nearly seven decades, the former Verna Marie Satterlee of New Orleans; nine children, Mary Landrieu of New Orleans and Washington, Mitch Landrieu, Mark Landrieu, Michelle “Shelley” Landrieu, Madeleine Landrieu, Martin Landrieu and Maurice Landrieu Jr., all of New Orleans, Melanie Cook of Mandeville, La., and Melinda Seiter of Mobile, Ala.; 37 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Landrieu once reflected as mayor on his early years in public office and the forces he had overcome in pursuing his work on behalf of civil rights, beginning with his service in the legislature.

“I never thought that I would get elected again,” he said, recalling his stand against the school segregationists, “but I didn’t care.”

“It was one of those crises of conscience … when a man has to decide what he is going to do with himself,” he observed. “I thought about it … and prayed over it, and just decided that I wasn’t going to sell myself over it. If that is what I had to do to stay in public office, I just wasn’t going to do it. I just did what I had to do.”

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