With the removal of Robert E. Lee’s likeness from its prominent perch at the center of Lee Circle, New Orleans now has four fewer public monuments linked to the Confederacy.
So goes the exercise in subtraction that’s touched New Orleans for several weeks, as work crews hired by the city carted off, one by one, four monuments targeted for removal by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2015. Besides the statue of Lee, images of P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, along with a monument to a white uprising against the city’s Reconstruction-era government, also got the hook. Landrieu wanted the monuments gone, concluding that they represented a racist legacy any forward-looking city should abhor.
For nearly two years, what was supposed to be a discussion about the future instead became an extended debate about the city’s past. If the monuments controversy pointed painfully backward, it’s in large measure because the mayor for too long failed to steer citizens ahead, providing a vision of what would replace iconic fixtures of the local landscape.
At the very least, Louisiana got a refresher course in the Civil War and slavery, two profound tragedies that Landrieu recalled in an eloquent speech on Friday. We learned once again that history is a running record of human fallibility — and a reminder that our descendants will judge us not only by what we got right, but by what we got wrong. The monuments debate in New Orleans will, on both counts, give our children and grandchildren much to talk about.
As the Lee statue came down this week, Landrieu’s office said the city will pursue the installation of a water feature in Lee Circle, and that an American flag will fly where the statue of Jefferson Davis stood. City Park officials will gather ideas for a new feature near the park entrance to replace the monument to Beauregard. The low-profile space near a Canal Street parking lot where the Liberty Place monument once stood will be left vacant. The city wants some government or nonprofit institution to take the monuments off its hands. Questions about the ownership of the Beauregard statue further complicate its limbo status.
These measures seem like plans for a plan, suggesting expedients sketched out on the back of an envelope with little or no public input.
A coherent blueprint for these public spaces, formed with the help of business and civic leaders, should have been part of the mayor’s strategy from the start, advancing an alliance for progress rather than the rancor and discord that distanced him from some of his political friends. The proposals announced this week seem like an afterthought.
In other ways, Landrieu’s leadership on this issue has seemed off-key. Citing security concerns, city contractors removed three of the four monuments unannounced and under cover of darkness. The clandestine removals were a departure from the city’s long tradition of public ceremonies, which affirm civic solidarity and, in our view, make violence less possible.
The removal of these monuments was, we were led to believe, supposed to liberate us from our past. As of today, we still seem imprisoned by it.