Six months after touching off a debate that revealed stark and intensely felt differences over how to interpret and commemorate New Orleans’ history, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Thursday signed into law a measure allowing for the removal of four monuments to Confederate leaders and a Reconstruction-era white uprising, and he suggested that other controversial memorials in the city may be rethought as well.
Having called in June for the monuments to come down in the wake of a shooting that left nine people dead in a South Carolina church at the hands of a white supremacist, Landrieu spent the summer and fall largely on the sidelines, at least publicly, of a growing controversy over the proposal.
But he stepped into the center of the dispute Thursday in a City Council chamber packed with rowdy partisans on either side, taking up his case in a dramatic exchange with Stacy Head, his chief antagonist on the council and the only member ultimately to vote against declaring the four monuments in question public nuisances subject to removal.
They include the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle, Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance to City Park, plus a monument on Iberville Street near the river honoring the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, an 1874 rebellion against the state’s biracial Reconstruction-era government by a group of former Confederates seeking to restore white “home rule.”
The 6-1 vote and Landrieu’s quick signature mean all four are destined for a city warehouse, possibly within days, although monument supporters quickly filed a lawsuit in federal court to try to stop that.
Brushing off accusations of divisiveness and questions from critics about where the removals would end, the mayor said acrimony over the proposal only revealed that old wounds “did not heal right.”
He said, “We should remember history and not revere a false version of it.”
Council members laid out the case against the monuments in both personal and historical terms, arguing the statues honor leaders who fought to maintain slavery and served as symbols of the post-Reconstruction movement to reassert white dominance in New Orleans and the South.
“As a society we can no longer live beneath their shadows,” Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said.
The clash between Landrieu and Head — which saw them talking over each other and alternately leveling accusations and digs — was the centerpiece of the day’s three-hour debate, which included an hour of sometimes rowdy public comment. While less raucous than the previous council meeting on the issue, audience members frequently chanted or heckled speakers, and council President Jason Williams had to call repeatedly for order.
Jerome Smith, a onetime Freedom Rider who was arrested when he and other civil rights activists sat at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworths store on Canal Street in the early 1960s, was at the center of the most chaotic moment of the meeting when he refused to leave the podium when he exceeded his allotted two minutes. Smith shouted that he was hoping to be arrested, and he was quickly surrounded by supporters as police and city officials tried to calm the situation.
Smith eventually left the podium and was not arrested.
During his speech to the council, he directly connected the statues to the civil rights struggle.
“No one who put those statues up said, ‘Don’t put that boy in jail. Let him sit at that counter,’ ” Smith said.
Head, who laid out her objections to the ordinance in an email last week, said she felt the process was being rushed and driven by Landrieu.
Landrieu shot back: “I didn’t create this division, nor did I create this tension. You may be knowledgeable of the fact that actually slavery did.”
Head offered an amendment that would have kept only the Lee and Beauregard statues — which have the most resonance with many of those calling for keeping the monuments — but was unable to find another council member willing to second the motion.
“Slavery was repugnant. The vestiges of slavery still impact us today,” Head said. But correcting those ills is “a lot harder work than removing statues.”
Landrieu proposed to put together a commission that would evaluate all public monuments in the city and the idea of creating a park to house those deemed to go against values of present-day residents. That, he said, would largely be a task for future councils and administrations.
“I have no question in my mind that the people of New Orleans are up to the task of appropriately commemorating who we are as a people and where we come from,” Landrieu said.
The plan he proposed bears similarities to a proposal that developer John Cummings — who has turned Whitney Plantation upriver from New Orleans into a museum about slavery — floated in September. At the time, he suggested the creation of a park featuring Civil War statues from around the country with educational plaques that provide context and historical details about those commemorated.
“Put them all up there and let them all see them and what they did, what they did before the Civil War, during the Civil War and after the Civil War,” Cummings said at the time. “That would be an educational conclusion to a terrible racial issue.”
Cummings also has been rumored to be providing the estimated $170,000 needed to remove the statues, but he has denied that.
More to come?
The mayor’s proposal also seemed to confirm the warning of monument supporters that the process of removing objectionable markers would not end with the four on the table during Thursday’s debate. Both sides have noted that many other prominent New Orleans statues — including those of Andrew Jackson and city founder Bienville — could be taken down under the same criteria.
The current debate dates back to June, when Landrieu said the statues should be taken down after a self-proclaimed white supremacist with a fondness for Confederate emblems allegedly killed nine parishioners at a black church in South Carolina with the hope of starting a race war. But Landrieu and council members Thursday referenced the long history of controversy over Confederate symbols in the city, seeking to rebut claims by opponents that this issue was stirred up solely by the mayor. Landrieu said this is an issue that every administration has dealt with since his father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, took Confederate flags out of the council chambers in the late 1960s. Councilman James Gray recalled having discussions about the offensiveness of the monuments in the 1970s.
The three statues to Confederate officials could come down within days, after the city selects a contractor from a list of firms that are preapproved for small projects. The tall column in Lee Circle will remain in place after the statue atop it is removed.
Ironically, it could take longer to remove the monument to the White League, which is seen by many as the most offensive of the four. Fights over efforts by previous administrations to remove that marker from public land ended with a court order that it remain where it is. The Landrieu administration plans to challenge that order.
The cost of removing all four monuments is now estimated at $170,000, about $40,000 more than when the proposal was first put into motion. The city has said an anonymous donor has offered to pay for the removal.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell objected to that secrecy during the meeting.
“Come from behind the curtain. Who is funding this?” Cantrell asked. “That is something we deserve to know. This is a public body, this is government; nothing that we do is anonymous.”
While eventually voting for the ordinance and attending Landrieu’s signing of it, Cantrell reiterated earlier criticisms of the process.
“When this process started, when it began with a man — please excuse me to say — when it began with a man of privilege coming out and apologizing for slavery and seconds later making it public that he was going to come to this body for the removal of four monuments that were selected by him — I felt disrespected by that,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell had drafted her own ordinance to remove Davis’ statue and rename the street dedicated to him shortly before Landrieu publicly called for the four monuments to come down.
The statues will be stored in a city warehouse until officials determine what to do with them.
Four groups filed suit in federal court to block the removal of the statues just hours after the council vote. The suit was filed by the Monumental Task Committee, Louisiana Landmarks Society, Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130.
Time to rename streets?
Neither the council nor the Mayor’s Office has proposed an ordinance to rename Jefferson Davis Parkway yet, though Landrieu suggested months ago that it be named for civil rights activist and former longtime Xavier University President Norman Francis. It is not clear whether a move will be made to rename Robert E. Lee Boulevard near the lakefront.
There also has been little discussion of what, if anything, should replace the statues.
Council members took aim at monument supporters who have argued that Lee and Beauregard’s actions after the war offset their involvement with the Confederacy. Though those arguments focus on Lee’s opposition to violence following the war and Beauregard’s support for racial reconciliation, the statues feature the generals in their Confederate uniforms, which Councilwoman Susan Guidry said made clear what their sponsors were honoring.
“These statues were not erected to honor these men in these prominent spaces because these men were honorable,” said Guidry, who had not previously disclosed her position on the removal issue.
Throughout the discussion, monument opponents and council members returned to the origins of the statues in the late 1800s and early 1900s as ways to rehabilitate the Confederacy’s image and assert white supremacy, drawing a direct line between those efforts and the struggles black residents faced under Jim Crow laws.
Councilman Jared Brossett said they were erected to remind African-Americans of slavery and continued white supremacy.
Williams read off descriptions of lynchings that he said killed 3,000 black people in often-public racial violence that was cheered by white society at the time.
Many council members said they personally knew the pain the statues cause.
“I know what it means to look up at the monuments and feel less than,” Williams said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.