More than six months after Mayor Mitch Landrieu touched off an explosive debate over whether statues honoring Confederate officials and a 19th-century white supremacist militia have a place in New Orleans, the City Council has taken its first step toward a final decision.
Four of the seven council members on Tuesday introduced an ordinance that would clear the way for the Landrieu administration to remove statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle, Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard near City Park, plus a monument commemorating the so-called Battle of Liberty Place on Iberville Street.
The introduction enters the measure into the record and allows the council to begin formal debate.
Council President Jason Williams said he and the other sponsors proposed the measure on behalf of the Landrieu administration, which had requested the council move forward on the issue.
The council could act on the ordinance as soon as Dec. 10, though Williams said he would consult with his colleagues on exactly how to proceed and whether to hold committee hearings or other events to allow the public to weigh in.
“I think it’s safe to say that whatever occurs going forward, everyone — regardless of which side they’re on on this — everyone’s view can be heard and be respectfully heard,” Williams said.
Council members Jared Brossett, James Gray and Nadine Ramsey signed on as co-sponsors of the ordinance.
Williams said observers shouldn’t read much into the fact that all four sponsors are black or that the other three members did not put their names on the measure.
The introduction of the ordinance, following a series of rallies against the statues over the weekend that saw protesters splashing paint and placing signs or Ku Klux Klan hoods on some of the monuments and other local statues, brings the debate over the statues back to the forefront after months in which it was overshadowed by other issues.
Landrieu joined nationwide calls to remove monuments and symbols connected with the Confederacy in late June after a gunman killed nine black parishioners at a church in South Carolina. That outcry came after pictures surfaced showing the accused shooter, a self-identified white supremacist who had said he hoped the killings would start a race war, posing with Confederate flags and other symbols.
Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey on Tuesday reiterated the call to remove the monuments from public property.
“Mayor Landrieu has a strong belief that symbols do matter and should reflect who we are as a people,” Rainey said in an email.
“Moving the location of these monuments — from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered — changes only their geography, not our history,” Rainey said “The people of New Orleans should have an opportunity to create new symbols for our prominent public spaces, symbols that reflect the values of who we are today.”
In seeking to take down the monuments, Landrieu cited a little-known ordinance that allows statues on public property to be declared a “nuisance” and removed if they meet one of several criteria, including honoring ideologies that conflict with the equal protections provided by the U.S. Constitution or support the superiority of a particular race.
Those making the case for removing the statues have said they were erected long after the Civil War as part of the “Lost Cause” movement, which sought to rehabilitate the Confederacy’s image in the years after the end of Reconstruction. The monuments later were used as symbols of the supremacy of the white elite, their critics have argued.
The Liberty Place monument is, perhaps, the most directly connected to that movement. The monument celebrates an attempt in 1874 by the Crescent City White League to overthrow the state’s biracial Reconstruction state government and restore “home rule.” Five thousand members of the White League, made up largely of Confederate veterans, fought against the Metropolitan Police and state militia.
As required by the ordinance, two city committees signed off on the removal of the statues over the summer after heated, back-to-back hearings.
Williams said he hoped the coming discussions would be respectful.
“I know that people are extremely passionate about this issue,” he said. “What good is it to have an open public dialogue if we’re all screaming at each other?”
A private donor has offered to pay the cost of removing the monuments, estimated at about $144,000, according to the Landrieu administration.
The ordinance’s introduction follows the end of a gubernatorial election that saw Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter attack Landrieu over the issues of the monuments and crime in New Orleans, a move widely seen as aimed at energizing his conservative base and linking the mayor to Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who went on to win the race.
The city administration’s efforts to remove the monuments faded into the background as the governor’s race heated up in the late summer.
Other, less political, issues may have played a role as well. Discussions of the monuments tapered off as the Landrieu administration turned its focus to events marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August and then to the city’s 2016 budget, which was finally approved Tuesday.
Administration officials did not respond to questions about why the ordinance was being introduced now.
The introduction comes days after activists held a series of rallies in front of various statues in the city to protest monuments they said celebrated white supremacists. Those included not just the ones targeted by Landrieu but also the statues of Gen. Andrew Jackson, former U.S. Chief Justice E.D. White and Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, all in the French Quarter.
During the rallies, protesters splashed paint onto the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, though it had apparently been washed off by Tuesday.
Police Department spokesman Tyler Gamble said the department is looking into the vandalism.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.