Six months of debate over whether to keep four monuments to Confederate officials on prominent public display in New Orleans will come to a head Thursday, when the City Council is expected to decide their fate.
The fight has roiled the city since early summer, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu first called for the statues to come down.
That call — viewed by some as an overdue recognition of the statues’ racist heritage and by others as an assault on the city’s history — has been injected into debates across the community and even during statewide political campaigns.
The council must decide whether to invoke an ordinance that would allow the monuments to be declared public “nuisances” because they support ideologies that conflict with the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, may be the site of violent demonstrations or would cause the city unjustified expense to maintain them.
With such a finding, the administration would be able to remove 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.”
Landrieu called for removing the statues in June in the wake of a shooting at an African-American church in South Carolina. A self-described white supremacist who used Confederate emblems in social media posts is accused of killing nine parishioners in what he allegedly described as an effort to spark a race war.
That event spurred a wave of calls to remove Confederate symbols from public property in Southern states.
Many opponents of the New Orleans statues argue that, beyond glorifying individuals who owned slaves and fought to keep slavery and later white supremacy legal, the monuments served as symbols of white dominance in the years after Reconstruction.
Those in favor of keeping the statues have said they represent an integral part of the city’s history and fabric, comparable to the buildings that preservationists have sought to protect for generations. Some have argued that instead of removing them, the city should instead add plaques providing more historical context to the statues or erect new monuments to civil rights heroes and others.
Landrieu appears to have the votes he needs to remove the monuments, though only two council members have taken public positions on the issue in recent weeks. Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell — who originally supported taking down the statues — and Stacy Head have said they are not prepared to vote to remove the monuments, citing a process they said has been overly dominated by Landrieu’s wishes.
Council President Jason Williams, Councilmen Jared Brossett and James Gray and Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey all spoke in favor of removal early in the process and are believed to still hold those views.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry has not publicly taken a firm stand so far.
Thursday’s meeting will be governed by stricter rules than the previous public hearings at which the public has weighed in. Those meetings often stretched for hours and featured heated exchanges.
Each side will be limited Thursday to a total of 30 minutes, with no individual allowed to speak for more than two minutes.
If the council votes to authorize removal of the monuments, what happens next is not clear. A private donor has offered to pay the cost of removing them, but the administration has not responded to questions about what the timeline for taking them down would be, whether the job would be publicly bid or whether city officials have been in touch with groups willing to provide a permanent home for the statues once they are removed.
An administration spokesman on Wednesday denied that a firm already has been selected to take down the monuments.
Some opponents of their removal have hinted they might sue to try to keep the statues in place.
Early in the discussions, Landrieu also proposed renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway in addition to removing the statue of its namesake. That has not been part of the discussions and will not be up for a vote Thursday.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.