As a committee of city government called Thursday for taking down four controversial statues that celebrate Confederate officials and a white supremacist group’s violent fight against a biracial state government during Reconstruction, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office said it is looking into whether he can use the power of his office to keep the monuments in place.
The monuments, including the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee atop the column at a St. Charles Avenue traffic circle, should be taken down under an ordinance that allows the City Council to remove public statues that celebrate racist ideologies or are likely to be sites of violent protest, the Historic District Landmarks Commission decided after about an hour of sometimes heated testimony.
The HDLC’s recommendation, approved by an 11-1 vote, now heads to the City Council. Later Thursday, the Human Relations Commission held a similar hearing on the fate of the monuments and was expected to issue its own recommendation.
In addition to the statue of Lee, the commission recommended removing the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the street that bears his name and the statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate general, from City Park’s entrance.
It also called for removing the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, commemorating attacks by members of the city’s white population against the state’s Reconstruction-era government in 1874.
“It is patently clear that the intention of putting these statues up was to lord over and oppress African-Americans, and this is a symbol in this city of the continued oppression of black people,” activist Malcolm Suber said as he called for the monuments to come down.
Dozens spoke on both sides of the issue in the City Council chamber, which was filled to capacity.
The HDLC’s recommendation was based on an ordinance passed by the City Council years ago after a controversy over the Liberty Place monument. That ordinance allows the council to remove a statue that is a nuisance because it “honors, praises or fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens,” that “has or may become the site of violent demonstrations” or that “constitutes an expense for maintenance or provision of security ... that is unjustified.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for removing the statues several weeks ago amid a national conversation about Confederate symbolism and racism that began after Dylan Roof was charged with killing nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a self-described white supremacist, had previously posed in photos displaying a Confederate battle flag.
Members of the Landrieu administration argued the statues were erected a century or more ago as part of the “Lost Cause” movement, aimed at rehabilitating the Confederacy, and were emblems of white supremacy during the era of the civil rights movement.
Some speakers Thursday said the monuments still represent that racist ideology and persistent inequality in the city today.
“Of course you should move the monuments, but you should go beyond moving the monuments,” Donald Chopin said. “The slavery mentality and the economic inequality those statues represent is alive and well.”
However, in a statement Thursday, the Jindal administration indicated it would seek to block the city from taking down the monuments.
“Gov. Jindal opposes the tearing down of these historical statues and has instructed his staff to look into the Heritage Act to determine the legal authority he has as governor to stop it,” Doug Cain, his spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
On Thursday, opponents of removing the statues, who were largely but not entirely white, said taking them down would amount to covering up history and that the discussion over the monuments would not solve the city’s real problems — almost universally described in terms of crime.
“There are many nuisances that could be listed,” such as “the homeless living under bridge overpasses,” John Belson said. “The statues that have been here a hundred years or more are not nuisances, nor are they responsible for some of the things we see,” such as violent crimes.
Several opponents of taking down the monuments said the city should, instead, erect new monuments to civil rights leaders or add plaques at the statues explaining their history.
One speaker, who identified himself as a professional engineer, said removing and storing the statues could cost more than $1 million. The Landrieu administration said it is still determining the cost of moving them.
While many speakers defended the statues of the three Confederate leaders, none specifically defended the Liberty Place monument, and several directly repudiated it.
The sole vote on the HDLC against removing the monuments came from Commissioner Ed deMontluzin, who represents the St. Charles Avenue historic district. He said Thursday was the first time he’d heard the words “white supremacy” in 20 years.
He also said slavery was “a minor part” of the causes for the Civil War — a view rejected by most historians and undercut by the language of the articles of secession adopted in late 1860 and early 1861 by many of the Southern states — and suggested black families wouldn’t watch Carnival parades at Lee Circle if the Lee statue was truly offensive.
“I have never, ever looked at any of these statues as an oppression or an indication of white supremacy in any way,” deMontluzin said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.