Public statues and monuments, by their nature, are meant to be permanent parts of a civic landscape. That doesn’t mean such memorials should never be removed. But when we do consider taking them down, we should do so thoughtfully.
By that standard, the process to determine the fate of several Confederate monuments in New Orleans doesn’t seem destined to inspire much public confidence in the result. That’s a shame, given the dimensions of a controversy that’s captured attention beyond New Orleans, bringing state officials with their own political agendas into the fray.
This summer, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for replacing the monuments with less controversial ones. The iconic images in question include the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee atop a huge column at a St. Charles Avenue traffic circle, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the street that bears his name and the statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at City Park’s entrance. Another monument commemorating an 1874 white rebellion against the city’s biracial Reconstruction-era government also is part of the controversy.
The Confederacy advanced white supremacy and slavery, twin evils of American history. No reasonable person can favor celebrating those ideas. But even some people who despise the Confederacy’s values have argued for keeping the monuments in place as a cautionary message to today’s citizens — and those to come after us. This dispute also invites reflection on what moral yardstick we should use to mark the past in public memory. Should the statue of Andrew Jackson, slave owner and persecutor of Native Americans, be removed from Jackson Square, too? What about memorials to slave owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose faces adorn our national currency?
Given the difficulty of such questions, we shouldn’t demonize our differences regarding the proper role of public monuments. That’s why the polarizing quality of this summer’s debate has been so regrettable.
Landrieu called for the monuments’ removal before getting widespread public input, creating the perception that decisions about the status of the monuments had already been made. Two city panels have recommended removal of the monuments, and the issue now heads to the New Orleans City Council, which almost surely will follow the recommendations. Cynics might be forgiven for assuming that allowing public comments before the committee votes was really just for show.
This process has seemed more driven by theater than policy, creating a natural climate for political posturing by many other players. Gov. Bobby Jindal, as well as U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who are GOP contenders to replace Jindal, have come out against removing the statues. State Sen. John Bel Edwards, the lone Democrat in the governor’s race, said the issue should be left to New Orleans residents.
Although state officials might shape this debate at the margins, the future of the monuments will, we suspect, ultimately be determined by the people of New Orleans, and that’s as it should be. New Orleans needs a united citizenry to confront its broader challenges, such as crime and public education. But this summer’s discussion of the Crescent City’s Confederate statues, ostensibly aimed at civic unity, is sparking division instead.
Sadly, a debate about public monuments has become a monument to political folly.