Next week, the New Orleans City Council is slated to vote on whether to remove four monuments with ties to the Confederacy from prominent public view. Debate about the monuments has raged for months, engaging interest from across Louisiana and the United States. That interest is understandable. New Orleans belongs to New Orleanians, but in a larger sense, it belongs to everyone who claims it as a unique cultural treasure.
But although the saga of the Crescent City’s controversial statues has been wide and enduring, it’s a story with an ending that, to this point, hasn’t been in doubt. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu appeared to seal the fate of the monuments over the summer, when he called for their removal before their status was considered by two city panels. In pronouncing judgment on the monuments before the public review process had even started, the mayor signaled that the wheels were already in motion to banish the statues from their perches.
The two committees reviewing the matter predictably turned a thumbs-down on the statues, and the City Council is expected to follow suit. This kind of process, in which the verdict has come before the deliberations, won’t inspire public confidence in the result.
That’s why we’re urging city officials to pursue a different path, placing the question of the monuments’ future on a citywide ballot so that residents can have a direct say in whether the monuments stay or go. Such a referendum can help sow unity in a city that desperately needs it.
It’s quite possible that such a referendum would affirm the desire of the mayor and many other well-meaning residents to remove the monuments. There are, after all, compelling arguments for consigning the statues to a less-visible place.
The monuments in question are statues of Confederate leaders Gen. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a memorial commemorating the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, a white rebellion against the city’s biracial Reconstruction-era government. The statues are, for many, an uncomfortable reminder of the racism that shaped the Confederacy and continues to blight society. The Liberty Place monument is an especially vivid example of the durability of such bigotry, even after the Civil War. At the very least, the monuments stand as testaments to spiritual imperfection, a condition shared by other historical figures whose images peer down from pedestals, including Andrew Jackson. This debate has been a poignant reminder that we will all be judged by our descendants, which invites a natural question.
What will those who come after us think about how New Orleans handled the historical fixtures handed down from previous generations?
We hope that history will show that New Orleanians handled their disagreements in a respectful and open fashion and resolved the dispute in a way that allowed both sides to accept the community’s verdict. Then they moved on together to address the community’s greater civic challenges: crime, lack of opportunity for our poor, decaying infrastructure, vulnerability to hurricanes.
The process begun by the mayor — clumsy and autocratic — will never yield that result.
The best way is to let the voters decide.