New Orleans leaders on Thursday made a sweeping move to break with the city's Confederate past when the City Council voted to remove prominent Confederate monuments along some of its busiest streets.
The council's 6-1 vote allows the city to remove four monuments, including a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that has stood at the center of a traffic circle for 131 years.
It was an emotional meeting — often interrupted by heckling — infused with references to slavery, lynchings and racism, as well as the pleas of those who opposed removing the monuments to not rewrite history.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu first proposed removing the monuments after a white supremacist killed nine African-American parishioners inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June and quickly signed the monument removal ordinance into law. He says the process to remove three of the monuments will begin within days by finding a contractor to take them down.
Anti-Confederate sentiment has grown since then around the country, along with protests against police mistreatment of black youths, as embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before Thursday's vote, Landrieu told the council and residents who gathered on both sides of the issue that for New Orleans to move forward, "we must reckon with our past."
He said the monuments reinforce the Confederate ideology of slavery, limit city progress and divide the city. He used President Abraham Lincoln's famous quote that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
The administration said it would cost $170,000 to take the monuments down and put them in a warehouse until a new location is found for them — perhaps in a museum.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana praised the City Council vote in a statement issued on Thursday. "With this vote, New Orleans will no longer glorify the worst of our history and can move forward on the path toward meaningful unity," the group said.
Stacy Head, a council member at large, was the lone vote against the removal. She is one of two white council members. She lamented what she called a rush to take the monuments down without adequate consideration of their historic value and meaning to many in New Orleans.
Fixing historic injustice is "a lot harder work than removing monuments," she said, even as many in the packed council chambers jeered her. She said the issue was dividing the city, not uniting it. "I think all we will be left with is pain and division."
Activist Malcolm Suber called the monuments "products of the Jim Crow era, an era when blacks were hunted and persecuted." Others said they want the council to go even further and change street names associated with white supremacism.
The Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Committee and Beauregard Camp No. 130 — groups dedicated to preserving the historical landscape of New Orleans — on Thursday challenged the ordinance to remove the structures by filing a federal lawsuit.
The most imposing of the monuments the council has voted to strike from the cityscape has had a commanding position over St. Charles Avenue since 1884. A 16-foot-tall bronze statue of Lee stands atop a 60-foot-high Doric marble column, which rises over granite slabs on an earthen mound. Four sets of stone steps, aligned with the cardinal directions, ascend the mound.
Above it all, the Virginian stands in his military uniform, with his arms folded and his gaze set firmly on the North — the embodiment of the cult of the Lost Cause that many Southerners invoked to justify continued white power after the Civil War.
The council also voted to remove a bronze figure of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that stands at Canal Street and an eponymous parkway and one of Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who was born in St. Bernard Parish and commanded Confederate forces in the war's first battle, at the entrance to City Park.
The most controversial is an 1891 obelisk honoring the Crescent City White League. An inscription added in 1932 said the Yankees withdrew federal troops and "recognized white supremacy in the South" after the group challenged Louisiana's biracial government after the Civil War. In 1993 those words were covered by a granite slab with a new inscription, saying the obelisk honors "Americans on both sides" who died and that the conflict "should teach us lessons for the future."
Before the vote, Head asked to keep the monuments to Lee and Beauregard in place. But her motion received no support from the rest of the council.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press