If the New Orleans City Council won’t allow Robert E. Lee to stand above Lee Circle, why should Andrew Jackson remain in Jackson Square?
That was the question raised before a City Council committee on Thursday. But with the request coming from someone who actually wants both statues to remain standing and a council that already has rejected the comparison, there seemed little chance the city’s most famous monument will be coming down anytime soon.
Richard Marksbury, a Tulane University administrator, told the committee that Jackson’s statue runs afoul of the same ordinance used to order the removal of monuments to Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the white supremacist militia that fought federal troops at the Battle of Liberty Place.
And if the council won’t remove Jackson, Marksbury argued, than it should not have voted to banish Confederate figures from the city’s public places.
“I believe the ordinance is poorly written, it’s ill-conceived and it’s dangerous, and the reason I say it’s dangerous is it’s unpredictable,” Marksbury said. “The main problem with the ordinance is that it requires us to re-examine and analyze historical figures by contemporary values.”
Marksbury got a platform to make his “slippery slope” argument largely thanks to Councilwoman Stacy Head, who cast the only vote against taking down the Confederate monuments in December. She chairs the council’s Governmental Affairs Committee, and Marksbury has been asking for a hearing on the Jackson statue for months.
The ordinance in question lists three criteria for declaring a monument a “nuisance” and removing it from public land: that it advocates or praises racial or ethnic supremacy or an ideology that violates constitutional provisions for equal protection under the law; that it has been or could be the site of violent demonstrations; and that the cost of its maintenance and security outweighs its historical significance.
Marksbury argued that the first test should certainly apply to Jackson, a slave owner who carried out the forced relocation of Native American groups — known as the “Trail of Tears” because of the deaths and suffering that resulted — from the southeastern U.S. to areas west of the Mississippi River.
During the debate over removing Confederate statues, Marksbury made the case that unless the council was prepared to remove Jackson, there would be no consistent argument for removing any of the controversial memorials.
“When there’s a law or ordinance, it should be applied fairly,” he said.
Aside from Head, he did not get much of a reception Thursday. Councilwomen Susan Guidry and Nadine Ramsey attended the meeting but declined to engage with Marksbury at all.
Head argued in favor of Marksbury’s point: that the city has been inconsistent in its application of the ordinance.
She called for either changing the city’s ordinance or else scrutinizing every statue in the city.
“We should bring closure to this dangerous precedent in one way or another,” Head said. “Or we examine every single icon we have in this city and make a decision once and for all that they are allowed or not allowed in a way that is constitutional and fair, so we don’t leave this to the next politician to pull our city apart for the next hot-button issue.”
Head said after the meeting she hoped the Landrieu administration would support altering the ordinance but that she did not plan on introducing a measure to that effect because she did not believe the rest of the council would support it.
Several council members have argued that the statue of Jackson is substantially different from those honoring Confederate officials or the militia known as the White League.
The Jackson statue, they argue, was erected to honor an individual with a specific tie to the region because of his leadership in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, not for his other actions. The Confederate and Liberty Place monuments, council members have argued, were erected specifically to honor their subjects for their defense of slavery and white supremacy.
Still, Marksbury’s comments touched on one of the lingering questions following the City Council’s vote: Should other statues in the city be re-evaluated, and what kind of criteria should be used?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu hinted at such a plan last year, but the administration has been silent since then about what that process would look like. Questions posed to administration spokespeople this week about the process and about Jackson’s statue specifically have gone unanswered.
The discussion is not just a philosophical one.
Take ’Em Down NOLA, a group made up of some of the strongest opponents of the Confederate monuments, as well as other groups have called for a more comprehensive review of icons in the city, saying it would result in many more being removed because of atrocities committed or financed by the figures they honor. The statues on that list include Jackson — for the same reasons cited by Marksbury — and others such as the statue of New Orleans founder Bienville in the French Quarter.
Attorneys for groups that oppose the monuments’ removal also have advanced arguments that the council’s decision to take down only four statues was discriminatory; their lawsuit has blocked the city’s plans, at least temporarily.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.