Moon Landrieu Dies at 92; New Orleans Mayor Championed Integration
Moon Landrieu, who reshaped racial politics in one of the nation’s most polyglot and irrepressible cities, New Orleans, where he won the mayor’s office in 1970 with a rare coalition of white and Black supporters, died on Monday at his home in New Orleans. He was 92.
The death was confirmed by Ryan Berni, a longtime aide for the Landrieu family.
As mayor, Mr. Landrieu championed the construction of the $163 million Louisiana Superdome, drawing tourists and a national spotlight to New Orleans. After serving eight years in City Hall, he was named secretary of housing and urban development in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and remained in that post through the end of the administration, in 1981.
He also founded something of a political dynasty: His daughter Mary Landrieu was a United States senator from Louisiana from 1997 to 2015, and his son Mitch followed in his father’s footsteps as New Orleans mayor, serving from 2010 to 2018.
A grandson of French immigrants, Mr. Landrieu had been a gregarious child, nicknamed Moon, who grew up in the racially mixed, working-class New Orleans neighborhood of Broadmoor. (He legally changed his given name, Maurice, to Moon during his first mayoral campaign.) By the time he was in law school, in the early 1950s, he had embraced integration in a city where the Black population nearly equaled the white one. (It would later surpass it.)
Serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives in the early 1960s, Mr. Landrieu put up an often lonely fight against an onslaught of state measures intended to undercut federal civil rights mandates.
“They were passing segregation laws every other day, and the one hand that would go up and say no was his,” recalled Norman Francis, a longtime friend and the former president of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black Roman Catholic institution in New Orleans. In the fall of 1952, Mr. Francis became the first Black student to be admitted to Loyola Law School, also in New Orleans. When Mr. Francis arrived early on the first day of classes, Mr. Landrieu was one of three white students who approached him.
“Those three guys walked up to me and said, ‘We want you to know that if you ever need a friend, we’re going to be your friend,’” Mr. Francis said in an interview for this obituary in 2013.
Mr. Landrieu rose in local politics by nurturing the crosscultural connections he had developed as a boy, even as many other Southern leaders of his era exploited racial division.
“In those days there were two types of populists,” said Walter Isaacson, the journalist and historian who also grew up in Broadmoor and who covered Mr. Landrieu as a reporter in the 1970s. “George Wallace and others hijacked Southern populism and made it racist,” he continued, also in a 2013 interview, referring to the Alabama governor, “but there was another type of populist who truly believed you could have a working alliance of working-class Blacks and whites.”
Mr. Landrieu championed integration, whether in public pools or corner bars, while serving in the Legislature from 1960 to 1966, the City Council from 1966 to 1970, and then as mayor. He pressed for one measure that integrated drinking establishments not long before New Orleans was to host its first Super Bowl, in 1970.
He also pushed for the creation of the city’s Human Relations Committee, which set up an “answer desk” that took complaints from Black residents who were denied certain kinds of jobs. When he became mayor, he required supervisors of city employees to watch a film, titled “Black and White: Uptight,” that explored the nuances of racism.
He startled many people by hiring a Black man, Terry Duvernay, as his chief administrative officer, the top nonelected position in city government. Another aide was Donna Brazile, a young Black woman who became a top Democratic political strategist, the manager of Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and a television pundit.
“This was the big moral issue of our time,” Mr. Isaacson said of integration, “and Moon Landrieu was out in front, which was both brave and moral, but also politically savvy.”
Even in an era of urban upheaval and prominent mayors — including John V. Lindsay of New York, Kevin H. White of Boston and Richard J. Daley of Chicago — Mr. Landrieu stood out in the South, and not just for his civil rights record.
He could be prickly and combative, particularly with the press — he called Mr. Isaacson “boy reporter” — and he promoted development and tourism, sometimes at the expense of preservation. Besides the Superdome, he supported a promenade along the Mississippi River that became known as the Moon Walk. He was criticized for razing historic buildings in the Central Business District, including the St. Charles Hotel. But he also helped prevent the French Quarter from being bisected by a proposed highway.
Mr. Landrieu was elected president of the United States Conference of Mayors in 1975, a position from which he argued for more federal aid for cities, including for New York when it faced bankruptcy.
When he left the mayor’s office in 1978, he was succeeded by Ernest N. Morial, known as Dutch, the city’s first Black mayor.
“We probably would not have had a Black mayor at the time that Dutch became mayor if Moon had not been mayor before him,” Mr. Francis said. “Moon took the spears in the back.”
Maurice Edwin Landrieu was born in New Orleans on July 23, 1930, to Joseph and Loretta (Bechtel) Landrieu. His father worked in a city power plant, and his mother ran a grocery store out of the front of the family’s shotgun house on West Adams Street. Mr. Landrieu recalled being confused as a child at seeing his mother hug and kiss Black babies in the store even as their parents, unlike some white customers, rarely entered the living area of the home.
He attended Jesuit High School, graduating with honors, and entered Loyola University on a baseball scholarship. After he graduated from law school in 1954, he served three years in the Army, then opened a law practice on his return home.
After his political career, Mr. Landrieu became a state appellate judge in Louisiana, serving from 1992 to 2000.
His daughter Madeleine Landrieu was also a stage judge and is now dean of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
His son Mitch formed his own multiracial coalition to win election as mayor of New Orleans in 2010, becoming the first white person to do so since his father. In 2021, President Biden made the younger Mr. Landrieu a senior White House adviser and national infrastructure coordinator.
In addition to his son Mitch and his daughters Mary and Madeleine, Mr. Landrieu is survived by his wife, Verna (Satterlee) Landrieu, whom he married in 1954; six other children, Mark, Melanie, Shelley, Martin, Melinda and Maurice; 37 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
Moon Landrieu’s strong stance on integration helped him win enormous support from Black voters, including about 90 percent of the Black vote in the 1969 Democratic primary for mayor and 99 percent in the general election. He received about 40 percent of the white vote in both races.
In a May 2020 interview marking 50 years since his inauguration as mayor, he noted that his fight for integration “wasn’t just a question of racial justice.”
“I recognized as a politician, as a legislator and councilman, that we were wasting so much talent,” he said, “wasting so much energy by precluding Blacks from participation in all matters — government, business and all the important matters of the economics of the city.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.