Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Four prominent Confederate monuments will be removed from the city’s landscape.
New Orleans’ city council voted Thursday to take down four major monuments dedicated to the Confederate rebellion that have stood in the city since the late 19th century. The statues include one commemorating Confederate army General Robert E. Lee, another honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and another dedicated to Confederate General P.G. T. Beauregard, who designed the Confederate battle flag that is finally facing retirement in some cities after years of flying in the face of common sense.
Another memorial to be removed is an obelisk that commemorates the Battle of Liberty Place, an event that happened after the Civil War and was forged by a group who were unambiguous about preserving white supremacy. This battle was waged by The White League, an outfit similar to the Ku Klux Klan except in name and robe, and who fought the city police in September 1874 in defiance of the Reconstruction’s reconfiguration of city government—or, more plainly, against the integration of African Americans into the voting electorate and public office. This monument was briefly stored away from public view, but was restored as an open city marker thanks to a campaign led by Klan leader David Duke.
When New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu apologized for the city’s role in slavery and proposed taking the monuments down this past summer, defenders of the monuments came out in droves in opposition, as they have many times in the past.
The vote to bring them down was 6-1, with only council member Stacy Head, pushing to keep them up. Head is the same council member who notoriously blew kisses goodbye when the council voted to demolish the city’s public housing projects in 2007. She did not appear to muster the same smooches for these shrines to white supremacy.
Landrieu, meanwhile, testified before the council, explaining why he chose to use his mayoral bully pulpit to champion for the monuments’ removal. Said Landrieu:
With eyes wide open we should truly remember history, and not revere a false version of it. We should remember that the Confederacy nearly destroyed our country, and would have seen to enslaving most of our city. By maintaining reverential monuments to the cause of this Confederacy in such out of context, honored, prominent public places, we betray our full history; ignore the progress of our city and limit our future. That is why again today on behalf of New Orleanians going back through the centuries—free and enslaved, rich and poor, white and black, creole, Native American, and so many others—let us move these divisive Confederate monuments to a Civil War park or museum. It will be here where these statues can be put into context and where the public can come to learn all of our history.
Mayor Landrieu giving impassioned speech on confederate monument removal. Says confederacy on wrong side of history pic.twitter.com/bAzX64x4y8— Rob Masson (@robmassonfox8) December 17, 2015
New Orleans is far from the only city in the South that has placed defenders of slavery on pedestals as part of their civic landscapes. Some have argued that removing memorials like these whitewashes history. This logic would only hold if the people represented by these physical structures were also erased from history books, school curricula, and the Internet. There are many places to recognize and reconcile a city’s ugly history; public squares don’t need to be on that list.
Others have argued that taking down the monuments won’t change city problems like poverty, violence, and racism. Nola.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry has written that preserving the monuments won’t do anything to change those problems either. Wrote DeBerry in a recent op-ed:
The defenders of the monuments have emerged to dash all our hopes of a new and transformed New Orleans. They argue that if the monuments are brought down, then that's the only thing that will have changed: The monuments will have been brought down.
As if that isn't enough.
How did we get to a point where those who don't want to see belligerent white supremacists on pedestals are asked to prove that taking down the monuments will bring about a millennium?
The city hasn’t decided what to do with these stone figures yet. There already exists a Confederate museum right around the corner from the Robert E. Lee monument. That museum is dwarfed by a neighboring mammoth museum dedicated to honoring World War II. There are plenty of places to bury these symbols. New Orleans is finally exhibiting the political will needed to give them a proper burial.