Of the Confederate monuments to be considered for removal by the New Orleans City Council today, one might not be greatly lamented.
Even sticklers for heritage nowadays find it hard to justify the Liberty Monument, the 35-foot granite obelisk erected in 1891 to commemorate the White League’s bloody uprising against the Reconstruction government in 1874.
If the council does decide to yank it off the street, it will not be the first time. Controversy over the monument has raged so long that it is woven into the city’s history.
When the monument was put up — in a prominent spot on Canal Street — it listed the names of the White Leaguers killed in the putsch but not the vanquished members of the mixed-race Metropolitan Police and state militia. And just to make it clear what the obelisk celebrated, the City Council approved the addition of an inscription in 1932 asserting “white supremacy.”
The monument duly became a rallying point in the 1940s for Dixiecrats, who were still in love with the idea of secession, and, by the 1980s, David Duke would show up there to laud the Ku Klux Klan and the Third Reich.
In 1981 New Orleans’ first black mayor, Dutch Morial, up and ordered the monument gone, but the City Council adopted an ordinance to block him. The 1932 inscription was, however, covered up, and Morial exercised the power of the executive by having ligustrums planted to block the view of the monument.
It retained its spot on Canal Street until 1989, when it was put in storage while street repairs were underway. Federal historic preservation officials required then-mayor Sidney Barthelemy to pledge it would be returned to a spot near its original location when the work was done in 1991, but he was no fonder of the monument than Morial had been and dragged his feet for a couple of years.
He finally acquiesced after Duke’s gang filed a lawsuit, but when the monument did finally appear, it was in its current out-of-the-way location by a parking lot on the edge of the Quarter, and the names of the Reconstruction government’s dead had been added. Duke organized a rededication ceremony, which turned ugly as black protesters crashed his party.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, fresh from her success in desegregating Carnival krewes, had her sights set on the Liberty Monument, winning passage in 1993 of an ordinance providing for the removal of any “thing that honors, praises or fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection.”
Whatever next? Would Taylor contemplate removing the statues of such major historical figures as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T Beauregard? That was the question on many white lips, but it was merely rhetorical. The prospect was too outlandish to take seriously.
Not any more. Mayor Mitch Landrieu now invokes the Taylor ordinance and wants the City Council to remove those very worthies along with the Liberty Monument.
If history is any guide, it won’t be a straightforward process, however. Shortly after giving itself the authority to take offensive sculptures off the street, the City Council did vote to consign the Liberty Monument to oblivion, but, fearing a lawsuit from the Duke contingent, decided to seek a declaratory judgment that it was within its rights to do so.
The case was assigned to then-state-judge Yada Magee, but she recused herself because she had taken part in a protest at the Liberty Monument some years earlier. The case was not pursued.
If getting rid of the Liberty Monument is so difficult, imagine the opposition that will mobilize if, say, old Beauregard is slated for the chop. His equestrian statue adds greatly to the city’s visual appeal, and, as a proponent of black civil and voting rights after the Civil War, he was pretty enlightened by the standards of his time.
If the heirs to the Confederacy figure Landrieu goes too far, some firebrands take the opposite view and want Andrew Jackson, Bienville and Iberville out of here too. Meanwhile, Landrieu’s allegedly dictatorial approach has ruffled some feathers on the council, and two of its members, LaToya Cantrell and Stacy Head, say they won’t support a plan he treated as set in stone before they had a chance to discuss it.
Passions run so high on either side that litigation seems inevitable whatever decision the council takes. It may be quite a while before there is any lost memorial to lament.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.