NEW ORLEANS, La. (AP) – Former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu – whose early, lone opposition to segregationists in the Louisiana legislature launched a political career at the forefront of sweeping racial changes – died Monday, a family friend confirmed. He was 92.
Longtime family friend Ryan Berni confirmed that Landrieu passed away early Monday.
“He passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family,” Berni told The Associated Press.
A progressive white Democrat whose demeanor could be combative at times, Landrieu came from a working-class Roman Catholic family, served in the army, and sat alongside early black students at the city of Loyola’s law school before winning a statehouse seat in 1960.
By then, it had been six years since the US Supreme Court ordered public schools to be desegregated nationwide, and Landrieu could not in good conscience go along with Gov. Jimmie Davis to overturn laws to racially segregate students in New Orleans. They passed on one-sided margins, with Landrieu receiving the only “no” vote at least once.
The white politicians who kept Louisiana in power said he had dug his political grave, but he retained his seat in the House of Representatives in 1963 and won a seat on the city council in 1965, with strong support from black voters, whose influence was beginning to take hold felt in the elections.
To win his first term as mayor, Landrieu assembled a coalition of white liberals and African Americans and campaigned to bring blacks into key government positions.
The integration of City Hall came at a price: In a 2018 memoir, Mitch Landrieu wrote that death threats were pouring into his family’s home and his school. Moon Landrieu discussed backlash over the race in a 1977 speech to the National League of Cities Congress.
“When you launch a campaign to end racial discrimination in your hometown, you need nerves of steel, a will of iron, skin like leather, and testicles of brass to withstand the slings and arrows,” he said. “I myself have been known as ‘Moon the Coon’ in some circles for the last eight years, a nickname that has at times caused me some pain, but it is also a badge of honor that testifies to what we are trying to do.”
Part of his legacy as mayor is his support for the state’s construction of the Louisiana Superdome, which eventually opened in 1975. It’s now a popular part of the urban landscape, but cost overruns and a contract scandal caused headaches for its supporters, including Landrieu.
“There was an incredible emphasis on the few things that were wrong about it and a complete neglect of the many, many things that were right about it,” he said a few years later.
As black voters gained influence, the coalition, which elected Landrieu to a maximum of two terms, helped make Ernest “Dutch” Morial the city’s first black mayor in 1978.
Landrieu then became President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, an agency whose programs were under attack when President Ronald Reagan took office in an attempt to reduce the size and power of the federal government.
Landrieu criticized Reagan for “exploiting” public aid programs and briefly considered running for president of his own. But he never aspired to national office. Instead, he became a judge — “I really wanted to avoid my kids,” he said — and served on the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeals from 1992-2000.
Several of Landrieu’s nine children continue his legacy in law and politics: Mitch, also a two-term mayor of New Orleans, is now President Joe Biden’s infrastructure coordinator; Mary, who served three terms as a US Senator, is now a policy adviser with a Washington law firm. Madeleine became the Dean of Law School at Loyola University in New Orleans, and Maurice is a District Attorney.
Born Maurice E. Landrieu on July 23, 1930, he was known throughout his life as Moon, a family nickname, eventually making it his legal given name. He served in the Army for three years before opening a small law firm with fellow student Pascal Calogero, who later became Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Landrieu credited his wife Verna for pushing him into politics and his black classmates, including Norman Francis, who would become the dean and president of Xavier University, for opening his eyes.
“It wasn’t just a question of racial justice, but from a practical standpoint, I recognized — as a politician, as a legislature and as a councilman — that we wasted so much talent, wasted so much energy excluding black people from participating, everything matters,” recalled in a 2020 interview with New Orleans weekly Gambit.
“And when I became mayor, I was determined to revitalize this city and bring about racial inclusion so the city can take full advantage of white and black participants.”
Governor John Bel Edwards called Landrieu a man of “bold vision”.
“Moon Landrieu was a bold and defining voice for Louisiana and his beloved hometown of New Orleans,” Edwards said in a statement. “In addition to his many contributions to our state and nation, he leaves the most lasting legacy of all – a family that continues his fight for equality.”