Mayor Mitch Landrieu advanced his call for the removal of four New Orleans Confederate and post-Civil War monuments Thursday by urging the City Council to begin a legal process that officially would label them as “nuisances.” Landrieu for the first time also proposed renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway to honor recently retired Xavier University President Norman Francis.
Appearing before the council at its regular meeting, Landrieu called on its members to hold hearings and solicit comments and recommendations from various city agencies before drafting an ordinance that would declare the monuments to be nuisances and allow for their removal.
The council then unanimously adopted a motion to begin that process.
While calling for a civic discussion on the path forward, Landrieu made clear that he believes the statues should be removed.
“To maintain these symbols as we move toward our future seems to belie our progress and does not reflect who we truly are or who we want to be,” he said. “I ask you, how can we expect to inspire a nation when our most prominent public spaces are dedicated to the reverence of those who fought for bondage and supremacy of our fellow Americans?”
The four monuments are the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee atop an imposing column in Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue; a monument to the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group during the Reconstruction era, near the foot of Canal Street; a statue honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, on the parkway also named for him; and a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard in a traffic circle at the entrance to City Park.
Landrieu also proposed renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway as the Dr. Norman C. Francis Parkway, in honor of the man who retired this summer after 47 years as president of Xavier University. Francis, an African-American, is a close friend of the Landrieu family.
Landrieu said the monuments, “built to reinforce the false valor of a war that was fought over slavery,” should be put somewhere less prominent and replaced with “something that represents the fullness of who we are and who we want to be.”
He also rejected the defense of the monuments as necessary to fully understanding the city’s history.
“Simply stated: remembrance, yes; reverence, no,” Landrieu said.
The motion adopted by the council initiates the process for determining whether the four monuments should be declared nuisances and removed from public property. During the two-month consideration period, the council will seek comments and recommendations on the matter from the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the Vieux Carre Commission, the City Attorney’s Office, the police superintendent, the director of the Property Management Department and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, according to the motion.
The council has requested that the city’s Human Relations Commission hold a public hearing to receive comments from the public.
The council itself heard from residents both in favor of and opposed to removing the statues at Thursday’s meeting. Most of the speakers, including national Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr., urged the city to remove the monuments, calling them symbols of white supremacy.
Lawyer Henry Julien said the monuments were not installed immediately after the war. Instead, he said, they were erected as part of the “Lost Cause” movement, a post-Civil War effort to portray the Confederacy as a noble idea.
Some critics of the monuments called Thursday’s discussion belated. Many urged the city to reach further and remove other symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy, including changing the names of schools and streets named for slave owners.
“This is a nice gesture, but it has been 131 years,” teacher Michael “Quess” Moore said. “One hundred thirty-one years that Robert E. Lee’s statue has stood up there, and it’s an obvious homage to white supremacy.”
Defenders of the monuments said they should remain in place as a part of history and should not be whitewashed into something more palatable.
Joey Cargol said the monuments remember the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the Civil War.
“These monuments don’t represent just a single man who sits at the top. They represent the men who died in the field,” Cargol said. “This isn’t memorials to slavery and oppression. These are memorials to men.”
In their public comments, council members Jason Williams, LaToya Cantrell, Jared Brossett and Nadine Ramsey all said they were eager to begin discussions that would eventually lead to the monuments’ removals. Councilwoman Susan Guidry was more restrained in her comments, saying she hoped the process would help to clarify what symbols should be declared educational and historic and should be honored.
Councilwoman Stacy Head did not speak on the issue, but she voted for the motion to begin the study process. Councilman James Gray was absent but was listed as a co-sponsor of the motion.
The discussion in New Orleans follows a shooting at a South Carolina church that left nine people dead and launched a renewed national discussion about Confederate symbols. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old self-identified white supremacist who was photographed displaying the rebel flag, is accused of shooting the six black women and three black men to death at a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The incident has led to calls for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state grounds, and several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, have said they will no longer carry products depicting the flag.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill Thursday allowing the removal of the flag from the Capitol grounds in that state. It is expected to be removed Friday.