A Louisiana House committee Wednesday advanced legislation that would forbid the removal of Confederate monuments.
After a racially charged debate that left several members angry, the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs voted 10-8 to advance the Louisiana Military Memorial Conservation Act to the full House for consideration.
Baton Rouge Rep. Patricia Smith said after the vote that she had hoped the legislation would be defeated in committee and thus avoid a similar divisive debate in the House chamber. She expects the Republican-majority in the House to approve the measure. “Maybe the Senate can stop it,” Smith said.
House Bill 71 would forbid the removal, renaming or alteration of any military monument of any war, including the “War Between the States,” that is situated on public property. The measure was amended to require the support of a majority of voters in a public election before any monuments could be removed.
State Rep. Thomas Carmody Jr., a Shreveport Republican who says his family has been in Louisiana since before statehood and includes many veterans, called his measure “an effort to make sure those persons’ sacrifices are not just randomly tossed away into the ash bin of history … My objective is to stop the hate.”
His legislation covered all military monuments from all wars. But the bulk of the testimony was about Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
Carmody said HB71 could not stop the two-year effort by the City Council in New Orleans to move to museums or other locations, the statues of three Confederate luminaries that dominate major intersections. If approved and signed into law, the act probably wouldn't take effect in time, he said, a position other representatives disputed.
The statues were erected about a quarter of a century after the Civil War ended and commemorate Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, General of the Army of Northern Virginia, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, a New Orleanian who fired on Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. They were instrumental in a war to break away from the United States and create an independent republic that protected the enslavement of African Americans, who now make up the majority of the city's population.
Police in New Orleans were called out Tuesday night to separate opposing sides that had gathered around the statute of Davis.
The hearing on the Confederate statuary came on a tense morning after reports that the U.S. Department of Justice would not charge the two white Baton Rouge police officers involved in the videotaped killing of a black man on July 5. The shooting caused civil unrest over the summer and officials are concerned at the reaction to news that the police offices wouldn’t be disciplined by the federal government.
More police than usual were walking the halls of the State Capitol and the parks that surround the legislature’s annual gathering.
Over a two-hour period, almost two dozen supporters of the bill testified in person before the committee. All were white. Rep. Johnny Berthelot, the former Republican mayor of Gonzales who chairs House Municipal, timed each presentation with a three-minute egg timer.
“I don’t care if we have white supremacy carved in stone and the word slavery. Can’t we just grow up over this? Can we?” testified Brenda O’Brock, of Shreveport.
“I’ve grown up in a cloud of racism,” said the 71-year-old Smith, who represents predominantly African-American Baton Rouge neighborhoods. “I really don’t see too many people who look like you … take to task those white supremacists.”
“You need to get over it,” O’Brock replied.
Berthelot interrupted O’Brock, “We’re going to be respectful.”
Steve Jones, of St. Bernard Parish, testified: “Tearing down the three main monuments in the city is as if Rome was to tear down statues because the Roman Empire wasn’t very politically correct.”
“These monuments that are still standing in New Orleans are not about some long-lived racial issue, even if they might have been at one time in our history,” Rob Maness, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last fall, testified in favor the legislation. “These veteran monuments and battlefield markers honor the sacrifices of all us veterans.”
“This bill has nothing to do with protecting veterans,” replied Democratic Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, adding that the legislation is about giving the state the ability to usurp the city’s authority when they don’t like the local decision.
The Democrat, who represents the Baton Rouge neighborhood where Sterling was killed, also was angered at the tone of the testimony. “Get over it’ is an insult to the African American community. So, if we’re going to say let’s get over slavery, then we could also say let’s get over the fact that you want these monuments to stay.”
Voting for conserving Confederate and other military monuments (10): Chairman Berthelot, Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans; Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Stephen Pugh, R-Ponchatoula; Jerome Richard, No Party-Thibodaux; and Malinda White, D-Bogalusa.
Voting against HB71 (8): Reps Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans; Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport; Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport; Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge; and Joseph A. Stagni, R-Kenner.