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How Robert E. Lee Got Knocked Off His Pedestal

Before New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu made his celebrated speech, a grassroots movement forced the city to take down its monuments to white supremacy.

Takedown artists: Michael "Quess" Moore and Malcolm Suber of Take 'Em Down NOLA (Abdul Aziz)

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s well-traveled, May 19 speech on why his city dismantled four Confederate- and Reconstruction-era city monuments sharpens focus about halfway through. He considers the perspective of an African-American, fifth-grade girl, looking up at the statue of Robert E. Lee that, until that day, stood atop a 60-foot column in the middle of a traffic circle.   

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

It was poignant—and perhaps exactly the kind of centering that’s been needed in the debate over the monuments from the beginning. It also sounded familiar. Just four days before Landrieu’s speech, New Orleans-based activist Michael “Quess” Moore wrote in a blog post for Artsy:

This past Thursday morning, just a few hours after the Jefferson Davis monument was taken from its 106-year-old perch, I showed the news footage to my third graders. I asked them if they could make a connection between the man in the statue and the discussions that we had been having all year. “Yeah, that’s them people who wanted to keep slavery,” they said. “That’s right,” I told them. “And what do you think our city is trying to tell us when they make people like that monuments and put ’em way up in the sky?” “That they over us, like our parents,” said one student. “That they have power,” said another. Ahh…the mouths of babes. I told them that they’d just spoken a truth that even their great-grandparents may have not been able to freely articulate.

Moore, a writer and elementary school teacher at the city’s Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences, is one of the primary architects of the removal of these uncivil symbols of a failed war in New Orleans. Long before Landrieu spoke out against the problematic shrines, Moore was helping organize the Take ‘Em Down NOLA movement to delete all monuments, markers, statues, and odes to white supremacy placed in plain view throughout the city (some of which are displayed in the map below).

Landrieu didn’t credit this movement in his landmark speech, but make no mistake: These monuments would still be standing had not Moore and his fellow organizers launched a fusillade of marches, protests, teach-ins, town halls, and other direct-AF actions squarely at correcting all false Confederacy narratives. Take ‘Em Down NOLA gave Landrieu the cover, and the mandate, to join a healing and cleansing process that has been many decades in the making. And they have no intention of letting the city stop at just the four monuments brought down this month.

Citylab caught up with Moore to discuss the origin story behind Landrieu’s speech:

So how did you get started with this effort?

For me, it started probably six years ago, at the New Orleans public library, where Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber, two revolutionary scholars, put on a presentation [on the history of the monuments]. When it was over, I was floored and shocked. I finally understood clearly why black people were in such a decrepit state in this city. It was by design; it was intentional. It infuriated me and excited me.

What really blew me away was the response from the audience that day—mostly progressive, academic, arts-oriented black folks saying, “But this is history—this should be preserved.” I heard this at least a couple of times. I couldn’t believe it. On top of that, here was the evidence of how effective those symbols were. We had a room of pacified [black people] who were just like, “It’s history; let it stand.”

Well, we didn’t let Saddam Hussein stand. When the American war machine topples [a monument to] tyranny in another country, it’s OK, but they can let it stand in our country? Well, it was history in Iraq, too.

Suber and Leon had already been strategizing and organizing around bringing them down before that point, right?  

Yes, but these things go in waves, and we were in a downturn. Malcolm had been doing this since the late 1970s. There were people who had been doing this work prior to him. There was Rev. Marie Galatas doing it in 1973. She was a huge proponent of this. This has been going on for at least three decades.  

What exactly happened in 2014 that set off the events that led to the removal of these monuments?

Mike Brown. Mike Brown getting murdered that summer and Darren Wilson not getting indicted led to a bunch of public actions all around the country. At the time I was organizing with BYP 100, and we had been talking about doing something since the Trayvon Martin situation happened in 2013. And it kept happening again and again. So we said [after Michael Brown], here’s a big national moment. We wanted to jump in that conversation and push it in the right way and influence it. Most of the people making commentary on this were white folks. Anarchists were leading marches and saying “black lives matter,” while we were marginalized in those marches, waiting on the periphery to speak.

We tried to hold a vigil the night of the announcement that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted and it got co-opted really quickly by a bunch of outside forces. Somebody decided they wanted to go up to the police station; it turned into about 50 people marching, but mostly white kids. They started doing stuff to agitate the cops. It turned into a whole privilege thing—like us having to tell them, “You don’t have the right to do that; you’re jeopardizing us.”

We recognized that we had to organize our own march amongst our own ranks. We did that within ten days, and we got about 300 people to show up, mostly black. We organized our white allies and told them to guard the periphery and not be in the inner circle, to reverse the previous dynamic, and also to use their privilege so that if we got advanced on by the cops they would be the first line of defense.

We were real intentional about that, and I suggested that we do it at Lee Circle. That’s the symbolic epicenter of our pain in this city. And it ended at Congo Square, which was the symbolic center of our healing. We made sure we had some actionable items, which were created from different things we were organizing around already. Mine was the petition to remove the Robert E. Lee monument and we issued that on November 30, 2014. That was the beginning of it, before Take ‘Em Down NOLA was officially organized. That was the first time we introduced that message publicly.

We did a number of actions, like, we put a hood on E. D. White, who’s in front of the federal court building. He was a U.S. justice of the Supreme Court, and a son of plantation owners. Most importantly, he was a member of the Crescent City White League, which was a version of the Klan that killed 3,000 black people during Reconstruction. He has a big bust in front of the federal court building and we wonder why we can’t get justice.

The speech Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave recently—you feel that it has overshadowed the organizing work on the ground?

Well, if [Landrieu is] going to just do a blanket order like that, it means nothing. [Ed note: In June 2015, Landrieu asked city council to vote to remove the monuments.] It’s a tree falling in the forest if the public is not educated about it beforehand, by sitting through a Malcolm Suber or Leon Waters lecture. Most people weren’t getting that. That’s why we were getting pushback from people in the city who didn’t know the history. Coming from a more people-power orientation, we know that kind of erasure is dangerous, because we’re dealing with a population that’s severely undereducated anyway. It shuts us out of the conversation, and it encourages more passivism and less engagement with the public.

That works for [city administrators] because they get to manage city operations a lot easier, but this conversation is so much deeper than just these symbols. When it comes down to it, it’s more about institutional equity, or the lack thereof. We have a budget that is 63 percent focused around prisons, jails, and police, and 3 percent around families and 1 percent around job development. So talking about erasing white supremacy is right there in the budget. Work on that. Work on housing equity and not pricing people out. Instead they sponsor policies that push poor black folks out.

City of New Orleans 2017 Annual Operating Budget

So yeah, we questioned the sincerity, because when they wanted public housing down, it was done. We had the infamous city council meeting, and despite all the resistance, it was done. They fired 7,500 teachers criminally in the still of the night. Done. If you wanted [the monuments removal] done, it could have just been done. After the city council voted, that should have been it.

So on the strength of that, we do question the sincerity, and if you’re going to say great stuff like that in your speech, there are still at least two dozen monuments, well over 100 street names, school names, and other institutions still standing.

How have you discussed this with your students?

I took this to my kids directly. They’re third-graders. I framed it as: Imagine that the little girl Anne Frank survived the Holocaust and she had grandkids and they went to a school called Hitler Academy—how do you think they would feel? They said that would be horrible, and they would hate that. And so I said, “How would you feel if I told you the same thing happened to your ancestors, and you go to a school like that right now?”

We go to Behrman, named after this notoriously racist mayor who disenfranchised the black vote for 20 years. And when I tell them that that’s who Behrman was they literally want to pull their uniform off and stomp on it. But that’s what, God forbid, common sense does. Some upper-echelon academics find ways to rationalize this moral wrong. I asked one of my third-graders, “What do you think the city is telling you when they put someone like this on a pedestal up in the sky?”

They said, “It’s like they are our parents, they have power over us. They look down on us.”  

You and your fellow activists have endured threats of death or violence from opponents of the removal. How have you coped with that?

When I’m looking at [those protesters], I see subhuman behavior, so it’s hard to qualify their humanity and take them seriously. Yet the threats can’t be taken anything less than seriously because shit can happen. Also, you can’t take less seriously the oppressive force that they represent. You heard about how [photographer Abdul] Aziz exposed this guy who was a principal [Ed. note: One of the neo-Nazi protesters was, at the time, a principal at a New Orleans school. He’s since been fired.] If you ever want to talk about how symbols meet systems, that’s it right there in the most obvious form, right there in your face. This guy was over hundreds of black children and the system put him in place because this ideology is so pervasive that he could go through the whole qualifying procedures, interviews, resumes, and someone let him in to educate our children because there’s no vetting process for that.

White supremacy is so normalized within the system that there is no cultural relevancy vetting process, where someone would ask the questions that would suss that out. Or God forbid, that any black person in their right mind would have sniffed out that something is wrong with this dude before even letting him get to that perch.

I know you asked me about death threats, but I’m talking about the normalization of certain things that leads to it being so easy to do that. The reason I’m not fazed is because we jumped in this whole movement on the strength of Mike Brown. Every black person is under the threat of death, the way that things are going. To make the decision to put yourself on the front lines to speak on behalf of those who could be killed means you’ve already made peace with the fact that nobody is safe really, anyway.  

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