Monuments Vote: A Path To More Change?

Dec 16, 2015

New Orleans City Council votes Thursday on an ordinance to remove four Confederate monuments. The mayor introduced it after nine black churchgoers were shot by a white gunman in Charleston, South Carolina over the summer. Hundreds of New Orleanians and many out-of-towners spoke before the council last week at a public hearing.

Those who want the monuments to come down say public monuments should reflect a city’s current values. They say the four in question -- a tribute to the White League, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals P.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee -- do not meet that criteria.

Michael Moore, an organizer known as A Scribe Called Quess, started the group Take 'Em Down NOLA.

"The symbols are the heart of the matter," he said at last Thursday's hearing. "The symbols are the reason why we have a disparity of 50 percent unemployment for black men. They are the seed of the ideology that created the systems that keep us enslaved today."

The opposition says taking down these monuments erases history. It could open a "Pandora’s box" of renaming and removals, said New Orleans resident Stanley Richard.

"If the council votes to take these down, we will be back here next year discussing the removal of Andrew Jackson and Bienville," Richard said, addressing the council. "This will not end 'til every monument and statue is taken down, every name changed, and the image of the fleur-de-lis is removed from the city!"

Hundreds of people testified before city council last week, amidst a constant flow of interruptions and name calling. The council announced that during this week's vote, comments will be limited to 30 minutes per side with speakers alternating between those for removal, and those against it.

David Goldfield is a Civil War expert at the University of North Carolina. As to whether removing these four will lead to an endless stream of removals and renamings, he says there’s a pretty easy place to draw that line.

"What’s different about the Civil War is that the Confederacy’s leaders unequivocally sought to perpetuate the institution of slavery," Goldfield says. "And future generations of white southerners erected statues of them for the sole purpose of  ratifying white supremacy and black oppression. It was central to their being."

The four monuments in question were erected after the Civil War as a part of what’s often called the Lost Cause movement, an effort to glorify Confederate heroes.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell came out against the plan for removal, she says, because the mayor didn’t ask the community or the majority black city council which monuments to remove and which to leave alone. But that stance came under fire from members of the crowd, like Deidre Lewis.

"Latoya 'Can't-tell-the-difference-between-right-and-wrong' said that this is not a community driven process," Lewis said. "That there’s no movement rising up to demand this action. I guess you’re just discounting us."

Cantrell says there are more options than just keeping these four monuments up, or taking them down. She says polarizing the issue like this can be damaging. It doesn’t lead to discussion; it leads to fights like the one last week in City Hall.

"If you’re not for it, then you’re racist," Cantrell says. "And if you’re for it, then you’re radical. It's not fair. It’s not a way to build community. But what when you allow for a process that is inclusive, it allows you to put everything on the table and then determine what is more important."

Some argue for taking these four down now, in hopes that it will start a community process.

Renaming has a long history in New Orleans. In the 1990s, activist Malcom Suber led a campaign to rename New Orleans public schools after leaders who were not slaveholders. By 2005 the Orleans Parish School Board had renamed 27 schools, including George Washington Elementary. He says there’s a lot at stake here.

"We are actually battling for the soul of the city," says Suber. "And the question is are we going to build a new reality that is more inclusive more progressive and rejects white supremacy?"

The "slippery slope" logic in favor of not removing the monuments sounds familiar to Bill Quigley, who teaches about social change at Loyola law school.

"When women were given the right to vote, people said, 'well next they’re gonna have equal say in marriages and they’re going to want to own property,'" he says. "This is the way societies change. The first step is not going to satisfy anybody. There will be a second and a third and a fourth."

If the council votes to remove the monuments, the mayor has said they should go in museums, not simply be trashed. Then, of course, a new process will have to start -- about what will replace them.