Between 1820 and 1860, New Orleans was an epicenter of the American slave trade. A century later, from the 1950s through the 1970s, New Orleans was an epicenter of the civil rights movement. That's quite a history, but one would be hard-pressed to trace it in the city's public spaces.
Maybe, now that four Confederate monuments will be coming down from prominent public view, it's time to tell the story of New Orleans' role in America's long march to freedom. There could even be a place in that story for the fallen Confederates — but only if they are placed in historical context.
This is my modest proposal for what the city should do with the so-called monuments.
For starters, let's stop calling them monuments. They are statues. A monument is something to be admired, and there's little to admire about those who fought to perpetuate and expand human bondage.
Second, let's change the narrative to one that stacks up against history. This is a story of New Orleans' role in both the enslavement and the fight for equality of African-Americans. It's a human story, which is why I think all the statues — including those yet to be cast — should come down from pedestals and be at eye level. These were mere mortals, much like our leaders of today, and their humanity — their strengths and their weaknesses — cannot be grasped if they tower above us.
In the long arc of history, the Confederate leaders are small-time players. They mattered for the four years of the Civil War, and some of them played a part in the nation's noble attempt to heal, but their contributions to freedom's story pale in comparison to those of Homer Plessy, Martin Luther King Jr., A.P. Tureaud, Dutch Morial and others.
The very notion that New Orleans should honor Confederate leaders at all flies in the face of history
Robert E. Lee never spent a day in New Orleans and fought no battles in Louisiana, but Martin Luther King came here in 1957 to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at New Zion Baptist Church on Third and LaSalle streets in Central City. It's shocking how few New Orleanians know these facts.
The very notion that New Orleans should honor Confederate leaders at all flies in the face of history. The city fell to Union troops without firing a shot in April 1862, and many citizens — black and white — fought for the Union afterwards. America's first black governor, P.B.S. Pinchback, lived here and was among them.
The good news is that New Orleans has many fine historians and curators who could help create an outdoor "living history" museum commemorating our city's role in freedom's long march, warts and all, in some readily accessible public space.
That long march was not a smooth, ascending line. It was sometimes written in blood, and it took some tragic turns. But, as MLK noted, the long history of the moral universe bends toward justice.
We now have an opportunity to memorialize New Orleans' place in that long arc. It poses a monumental challenge, but this is our chance to meet that challenge.