Dozens of protesters, including some well-known black activists in New Orleans, gathered Friday at Lee Circle to rally for the immediate removal of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other local symbols they say denigrate African-Americans.
The event, which included the burning of a Confederate battle flag, took place just days after Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of the statue amid the widespread shock and anger stemming from the June 17 massacre of nine people in a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old self-described white supremacist, has been charged with the mass shooting.
“We’ve reached a high point in this struggle,” said Malcolm Suber, of Community United for Change, as he held the so-called rebel flag, a divisive symbol of the South’s attempt to secede from the union and preserve its slave-based economy that ended 150 years ago when Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. “We need to get the mayor and City Council on board with this. They need to act and act swiftly and, as they say, strike while the iron is hot.”
Suber, who previously fought to rename New Orleans schools named after former slave owners, asked the mayor to “follow his own words” and act immediately, rather than engaging in debate or conversation about the issue.
W.C. Johnson, a member of the activist umbrella group United New Orleans Front, echoed that sentiment.
“There has been too much talk and debate already,” he said.
Johnson said the mayor has the authority through executive order to remove “the misfit trinkets” that he said are “cluttering the landscape of New Orleans.”
Several protesters suggested that the Lee statue be replaced with one of the Rev. Avery Alexander, a former state lawmaker and longtime civil rights leader in New Orleans.
Others suggested that a statue of Grant replace the one of Lee.
Not everyone agreed with the protesters’ point of view, however.
At the beginning of the rally, which went on as planned despite a short rainstorm, a group of ministers, NAACP members and representatives from the Black Youth Project 100 briefly clashed with a handful of supporters who had gone to Lee Circle to call for the statue to remain where it is.
“Lee was a great general,” said Muriel Lauff, a 65-year-old New Orleans resident. “The thing is, people are making symbols that have never been hate symbols into hate symbols. I don’t understand the point of it.”
Lauff added that city officials have a responsibility to remember the history of the South, slavery and all.
“They had good slave owners; they had bad slave owners,” she said. “I don’t see the hate in any of it.”
Her friend, 55-year-old local resident Annette Cantrelle, agreed.
“There are two sides to every story,” Cantrelle said. “But they shouldn’t take the monuments down. That’s what makes New Orleans unique.”
The comments sparked outrage among some of the protesters, who started to yell and raise their hands. Others urged their friends not to “waste time” talking to the two women.
Eventually, the two women moved on, and the protest resumed. After several speeches, the Rev. Raymond Brown made his way to the lectern and held up a paper flag and some matches.
Brown, president of the local organization National Action Now, then lit the flag on fire, shouting, “Let it burn! Let it burn! Let it burn!”
The group broke into a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” before successfully burning the paper flag and part of a cloth flag. Many stomped on the remnants of the flags before resuming speeches before a small crowd.
“We cannot wholeheartedly project ourselves as an international city around the world when we have symbols of racism indicating that this is a segregated society still, funded by public money,” said lawyer Morris Reed, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, as the small crowd cheered.
“We demand that they remove these symbols of racism, segregation and racial superiority from public property immediately.”