Confederate monument debate stirs up New Orleans’ historical anxieties

City Council to vote on removal of symbols deemed racist, in face of those who say ‘all history matters’

A monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has demanded its removal, along with three other Confederate-themed monuments.
PHAS / UIG / Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — On the edge of downtown New Orleans, where the oak-lined expanse of St. Charles Avenue narrows to wrap around a busy traffic circle, a statue of famed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands atop a 60-foot marble column.

The monument at Lee Circle, as it has been called since 1884, has been at the center of a heated debate since July, when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu demanded its removal, along with three other Confederate-themed monuments: a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, a high-ranking Confederate officer; a monument to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president; and the Liberty Place monument, commemorating a deadly 1874 uprising by the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group, against the integrated Reconstruction government.

That debate is coming to a head. The New Orleans City Council will vote on Thursday on what would be a landmark ordinance to declare these statues a public nuisance, paving the way for their removal. With four co-sponsors, the ordinance is poised to pass the seven-member body, though the public remains sharply divided.

Tense public forums on the monuments — including a raucous at-capacity meeting last week — have exposed deep rifts in a city that touts itself as a cultural melting pot but has continually struggled with deep racial and economic inequality.

“These monuments are of people that reigned down over not just New Orleans but also the South and kept people enslaved,” Latoya Lewis, a community organizer at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said after last Thursday’s public hearing on the monuments. “We are worshiping those same ideologies. And if you look at the system in New Orleans, the system hasn’t changed much.”

Fewer than half the working-age African-American men in the city are employed, according to a 2015 analysis by the the Data Center. Recent research by the National Urban League puts poverty among black children in New Orleans at more than 50 percent.

Lewis, who advocates for equal employment access and living wages with the center’s Stand With Dignity campaign, links the monuments to the slavery era and to present-day economic inequalities. “We are not in shackles, but we are working till we die from paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Stand With Dignity and other community groups have partnered with Take ’Em Down NOLA, a movement started by black activist and artist Quess after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing demonstrations. The coalition says it aims to remove “all symbols of white supremacy” in New Orleans.

Like Lewis, Quess links the Confederate monuments and systemic issues in the black community, like high crime and unemployment rates. “All of those things are not separate. They are the limbs of this body,” he said. “The heart is the ideology of white supremacy. The symbol is right in your eyes.”

‘All monuments matter’

But those on the other side of the debate highlight the symbolic weight of these statues and counter that Landrieu’s proposal has only sowed division in the city.

“All of a sudden everyone thinks the monuments are racist,” said Mary Smith, an unemployed woman living outside New Orleans. “They were put up to support our people, our ancestors that fought to give both black and whites their freedom.” Smith, who is white, was part of a small contingent that waved Confederate flags outside City Hall before the meeting last week.

“Everyone is going to have their own opinion about it,” said Pierre McGraw, the founder of the Monumental Task Committee, a volunteer-run group that works on monument maintenance around the city and opposes the mayor’s ordinance. The people who erected the Confederate statues, McGraw says, “wanted to send a message to the future that at the time they thought these people had made a significant contribution … These were noble men in their eyes.”

The committee’s counterplan to address the monument controversy includes advocating “respect and tolerance for all monuments,” adding interpretive plaques to some statues and erecting new ones. It recently ran an online petition that collected 31,000 signatures in support of keeping the monuments. But an analysis by the mayor’s office showed that only about one-fifth of those signatures were from New Orleans residents.

All history matters” has become a rallying cry for monument supporters, echoing the now familiar “All lives matter” refrain of those who say the Black Lives Matter movement is itself racist. White stickers bearing that slogan in bold black letters dotted the shirts of many in attendance at last week’s hearing, and a few “All monuments matter” signs have popped up downtown.

“If folks really felt that all history matters, then they would be with us,” said Julia Shavers, a 21-year-old LGBT activist and a Take ’Em Down NOLA supporter, “rather than just uplifting these white supremacists … that don’t look like most of the communities that are in this city.”

In a city that is about 60 percent African-American, the “all history matters” argument, says Quess, “is more insulting than anything … If it did, there would be all types of monuments to the fact that this city was the biggest slave port in the country.”

‘Opening Pandora’s box’

For many, the monument debate is about more than just local concerns. Amid heightened national anxieties over race, terrorism and cultural change, the discussion here tied in national concerns like Black Lives Matter and what some people termed political correctness. Many pointed to a kind of domino effect that could occur if just one Confederate statue is taken down; the phrase “opening Pandora’s box” was used repeatedly.

“Please don’t let political correctness attempt to erase 400 years of history,” said one monument supporter. “Don’t promote divisiveness and intolerance.”

But for some on Take ’Em Down NOLA’s side, support for the monuments can be explained in less complex terms.

“They’re afraid to say that they are racist,” said Gavrielle Gemma, a native New Orleanian and a supporter of Take ’Em Down NOLA. “These statues are here unequivocally for the continued white supremacy in Louisiana and to remind everyone that they can get away with it, that this is a state that can elect a David Duke.”

Duke, a onetime state representative and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, played a central role getting the Liberty Place monument — one of those up for removal in Thursday’s vote — reinstalled in 1993, after it was temporarily removed for street construction work. Duke threatened to sue the city after it missed several deadlines on reinstallation. At an infamous rededication ceremony that year, police arrested several protesters, including civil rights leader the Rev. Avery Alexander, who was removed from the site in a chokehold.

Many monument supporters seem to have shied away from highlighting the Liberty Place monument, instead focusing on those commemorating prominent Confederate figures. But in New Orleans, where it’s not uncommon to trace family roots back hundreds of years, the debate over history and monuments often has personal resonance.

Arlene Barnum, an Oklahoma resident who was raised in Louisiana, traveled to New Orleans to attend a public hearing on the monuments. Barnum, who says she has black and white roots, held a Confederate flag outside City Hall and said how her great-grandmother often recounted the story of the Liberty Place uprising, which her great-great-grandmother witnessed.

“If they take it down, I wont be able to tell my children and grandchildren about it,” she said. “I can’t deny the white part of me, the black part of me or the mulatto part of me.”

David Williams, who attended an anti-monument rally steps away, had even closer ties to one of the statues at hand. Williams said he is related (through an ancestor’s marriage) to P.G.T. Beauregard and can trace his family’s history back to the city’s founding. His middle name, De La Ronde, comes from one of the biggest slave owners in neighboring St. Bernard Parish.

“Somewhere along the way, we forgot why he was so well known,” Williams said of his eponym. He says his mother lays a wreath every year at the foot of the Beauregard statue and feels that his calling for the removal of his ancestor’s statue helps even the score in some way.

“My family has done a lot of work to keep the racist order together,” he said. “There’s so much historical momentum behind the idea of racism. But we all live here and deserve basic dignity.”

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