AP’s race and ethnicity beat writer Jesse J. Holland was on vacation in Mississippi when a source called with a tip: New Orleans’ mayor was ordering the removal of the first of four Confederate-related statues in the middle of the night to avoid a racially-charged scene in the city.
Holland’s quick work to negotiate an exclusive on the monument’s removal, including an interview with the mayor, and photographer Gerald Herbert’s dramatic pre-dawn photos and video, earn the Beat of the Week.
The Liberty Place monument, a 35-foot granite obelisk, was erected to commemorate a deadly white supremacist uprising in 1874 that tried to topple a biracial Reconstruction government installed in New Orleans after the Civil War. Holland’s source, whom he knew from covering former President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, told him that Mayor Mitch Landrieu was going to have it removed in the middle of the night, the latest example in a movement to take down symbols of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South.
Holland negotiated an exclusive in which the mayor would speak to the AP about the monument’s removal.
Holland, sitting in the Memphis airport after his flight back to Washington, D.C., had been canceled, contacted Landrieu and negotiated an exclusive in which the mayor would speak to the AP about his reasoning and timing for the monument’s removal. Holland then arranged for Herbert’s access, coordinating with Race and Ethnicity Editor Sonya Ross, in Washington, D.C., New Orleans correspondent Rebecca Santana and Deep South Editor Jim Van Anglen.
An AP NewsBreak moved in advance of the removal of the statue at 2 a.m. Newspapers in the city relied on Holland’s story. Herbert was able to capture the predawn removal – a crucial piece of the story as the images vividly showed the workers wearing bullet proof vests. He also contributed a description of the scene:
“The removal of the obelisk was carried out early in the morning because of death threats and fears of disruption from supporters of the monuments. The workers wore military-style helmets and had scarves over their faces. Police were on hand, with officers watching from atop a hotel parking garage.
“‘The statue was put up to honor the killing of police officers by white supremacists,’ Landrieu said. ‘Of the four that we will move, this statue is perhaps the most blatant affront to the values that make America and New Orleans strong today.’”
The story, images and video were widely used by major newspapers and networks. Newswhip showed that the story was used on more than 600 sites, and that there was more than 300,000 engagements on Facebook and 10,000 on Twitter.
For mobilizing quickly to ensure exclusive access to a moment that encapsulated America’s countinuing efforts to grapple with race and its own history, Holland and Herbert win this week’s $500 prize.