One consequence of the long legal delay in taking down New Orleans' hotly disputed Confederate-themed monuments is that the focus has remained firmly on the past. The burning question was what would, and should, become of prominent statues depicting Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, both depicted as warriors for the thankfully lost cause?
A second consequence is that the related question of what should replace them now moves front and center, just as the city gears up to elect a new leader.
The drive to banish the three statues from city streets, along with an out-of-the-way monument to a white supremacist uprising during the Reconstruction period, was initiated by the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu. The City Council formally approved their removal in late 2015.
Last week's long-awaited federal appeals court decision denying a move by preservationists to keep the three statues in place — and going so far as to declare that the plaintiffs' arguments “wholly lack legal viability or support”— has pushed the issue of the sites' futures squarely into New Orleans' upcoming political season. (A separate decision by U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier cleared the way for the city to remove the Battle of Liberty Place monument, although the future of its location behind the Canal Place parking garage is unlikely to generate much interest.)
Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard will soon be decampi…
The Landrieu administration has already put the removal contract out to bid, and if the mayor gets his way, the statues will disappear from the corner of Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal Street, Lee Circle and the entrance to City Park by late May. Candidates to replace the term-limited Landrieu must sign up to run in the fall election in July.
What sorts of new symbols the city should erect in such public places and after such a loaded debate probably won't eclipse crime, affordable housing and other quality-of-life issues.
And frankly, none of the politicians now considering a run have made the monuments a major focus, although several have had a chance to formally weigh in. Back during the heated initial debate, the one council member who's likely to appear on the October primary ballot, LaToya Cantrell, blasted Landrieu's approach as overly top-down but ultimately voted with the 6-1 majority in support of removing the monuments. And three state senators who could become candidates, Troy Carter, J.P. Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, all voted in committee against a failed 2016 state bill aimed at superceding the council vote.
None have spoken out about what should replace Davis, Lee and Beauregard (nor, for that matter, has Landrieu), but now that the moment appears to be at hand, it's time they do.
There's plenty at stake here. Mayoral candidates' positions will give voters a glimpse of how they would handle emotional and racially divisive controversies, whether they think the city should turn its sights to other monuments glorifying historical figures that wouldn't pass muster today, what sort of decision-making processes they'd favor, and how'd they'd collaborate with others inside and outside of government. The inevitable debate will also help them communicate something deeper and broader about how they view the city they hope to govern, and which pieces of its 300-year-long history they see as most worth celebrating . It promises to be a revealing discussion, not just a timely one.
The truth is that these monuments reflected the moment in time in which they were erected, and standards evolve just as urban landscapes do. Landrieu's administration vows to have them moved into storage quickly, and ultimately placed in some sort of public space in which they can be explained in context. The sooner that happens, the sooner everyone can start to focus on what the city's public spaces should say in the modern era, and not what they shouldn't.
And really, what better way for potential leaders to share their visions of New Orleans' very identity?