The fate of three statues of Confederate officials and one memorializing a white supremacist group’s violent uprising against the state’s Reconstruction government is likely to be decided next week as the New Orleans City Council weighs in on whether the monuments should be declared “nuisances” and removed from public land.
The council said Tuesday it plans to vote at a special meeting Dec. 17 after public hearings Thursday and at the special meeting.
Also Tuesday, a group dedicated to maintaining and restoring all public statues in the city presented officials with more than 31,000 signatures of area residents who want to keep the statues in place, and Councilwoman Stacy Head criticized a process she said has been rushed and is heading toward “a foregone conclusion.”
The council will decide whether to accede to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s call to remove statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and a monument commemorating the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place.
Landrieu has been pushing to remove the statues since June, when he joined officials in other Southern states in calling for the removal of Confederate iconography in the wake of a deadly mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina believed to have been inspired by white supremacist ideology and Confederate emblems.
Those seeking to remove the statues, including Landrieu, say they are problematic not just because they celebrate the Confederacy, a government founded to preserve slavery, but also because they were erected as part of a post-Reconstruction effort to assert white supremacy in the South.
While the debate over the statues has simmered in the public consciousness and before several city committees since June, the council itself weighed in only briefly when Landrieu first proposed removing them from public spaces.
A more in-depth discussion is expected Thursday, when the council will hold a public hearing to take comments. That session is expected to start about 2 p.m. The vote is expected to come Dec. 17, when the council will hold a special 10 a.m. meeting to take up the issue again.
In light of heated meetings on the issue earlier this year and what he described as voluminous and often passionate comments sent to council members’ offices, council President Jason Williams called for a respectful dialogue at the meetings.
“My hope is that this is an opportunity for a sincere and honest conversation on public symbolism, race and history,” Williams said. “I ask that everyone who participates come with an open mind and respect the opinions of others.”
However, Head, in an email to constituents, said the process outlined by Williams will leave too little time for discussion.
“I do not believe that this issue can be properly vetted by the council in a rushed fashion,” she said. “I would prefer, and I have made my thoughts known to my colleagues, that this matter be taken up after Mardi Gras and the important spring election. It is our duty as a council to give the disparate voices an opportunity to be heard.”
Head said the Landrieu administration “has controlled virtually all aspects of the process,” including determining which monuments might be moved and the timing of the hearings.
Opponents of removing the monuments have raised similar criticisms, noting that the city committees that have signed off on the removal are filled with Landrieu appointees.
Head said she believed Landrieu already has identified contractors who would do the work — suggesting the administration is confident of the outcome — and she said plans to place the statues in storage initially would make it more difficult eventually to move them to a private institution such as a museum.
Administration officials have said a private donor has offered to pay the estimated $144,000 cost of removing the statues.
Head appears to be in a minority on the council. Williams, Councilman Jared Brossett and Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Nadine Ramsey all have indicated they are in favor of removing the statues, and Councilman James Gray was the co-sponsor of the motion that started the process.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry — the council’s other white member besides Head — has not made her views clear.
The council and the administration were presented Tuesday with tens of thousands of signatures collected by the Monumental Task Committee, a volunteer organization that does upkeep on statues throughout the city, opposing removal of the four monuments.
Pierre McGraw, the group’s president, said the signatures were gathered outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, by going door-to-door and during other events. While he said the list was “New Orleans-centric,” it was not clear how many of the signers live in Orleans Parish.
The committee proposed placing new interpretive plaques at the four statues and partnering with other organizations to erect new monuments honoring figures such as chef Paul Prudhomme, Revolutionary War soldiers and the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era.
“New Orleans is known as America’s most iconic city,” McGraw said. “It has earned that title by preserving its rich history, not by removing and destroying it.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.