I am sure the monument controversy precipitated, as it did for me, intense discussions among friends and associates with various and many times opposing points of view. My initial reaction was to stay out of the public fray. However, inspired by the recent and now nationally acclaimed speech given by new Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, I thought it best to share on the record what I have been privately telling my friends.
As one whose life work has been preserving historic structures, my initial reaction — though not then strongly held — was opposition to the demolition of the Robert E Lee monument. (Removal of the Liberty Monument for me was a no-brainer.) I felt generally monument removal to be a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? Subsequently, I read an op-ed by Walter Isaacson, a New Orleanian and former editor of Time Magazine entitled, “How do we decide fate of Confederate monuments in New Orleans?” His point was to look to history and determine what message the monument intended to convey. Researching newspaper articles, he found some of the people involved in the decision to build the Lee monument intended it to be a symbol of a “chivalric chieftain of the Lost Cause” and others viewed it as a “defiant symbol of white resistance and Southern rebellion.” His viewpoint made sense to me, so I tried to place myself in the shoes of those in favor of removal and those against. I concluded, given the abominable wrong of chattel slavery the insult was far, far greater for those African-Americans who favored demolition than for those who favored retention. Thus, I supported its demolition.
Moving forward, we should always be loath to erase history and consider removing only those symbols that were unequivocally and solely intended to convey support for the institution of slavery and/or publicly enforced racial segregation.
The monuments are now down pursuant to the decision of our democratically elected representatives, the mayor and City Council. Their decision should be respected, and we should move on to address the many serious problems and opportunities facing our community.