Monumental Rubbish: With the Statues Torn Down, What Next for New Orleans?Roundup
tags: New Orleans, Confederate Monuments
I’ve been in New Orleans since May 1. I came to visit my mother, who died on May 4, five months shy of her 95th birthday and was buried on May 10. That means I’ve been here through much of this latest round of public cavil over the city’s decision to remove the four most conspicuous monuments to the Confederate insurrection, 1861-1865. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the first mayor to have received a majority of black and white votes at least since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, proposed removing them not long after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia—which itself had been the source of a long-running controversy—in the wake of Dylan Roof’s white supremacist spree killing in a black church in Charleston. Mayor Landrieu proposed an ordinance mandating removal, which the City Council passed in December, 2015, with a 6-1 vote, the one dissent coming from a post-Katrina white politician who has built her career largely on catering to Uptown, upper-status whites by demonstrating her combativeness toward black interests.
The first and most openly noxious of the four, the so-called Liberty Monument, finally was removed on April 24, a week before I got here. That monument was erected in 1891 to commemorate the uprising perpetrated fourteen years earlier by the explicitly white supremacist Crescent City White League against the interracial Metropolitan police force of the Reconstruction government. The White League, which included many of the most prominent nominally white New Orleanians, including future Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Edward Douglass White, represented itself as defenders of a “hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization." It’s worth noting that for decades many Italian-Americans also were affronted by the monument, which they associated with the lynching, in the year it was erected, of eleven Sicilians by White League veterans who invoked the spirit of September 14, the date of the original insurrection, in their bloodlust. In 1932 the city added inscriptions to the obelisk that lauded the insurrection for having installed a government elected "by the white people" and praised the 1876 election that “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state." For nearly a century that monument was located at the base of Canal Street, the metaphorical entry point to the city from the port. From the 1940s to the end of the 1980s it was, after the Algiers ferry landing and a seedy tattoo parlor, the first thing one saw on entering the city. Its removal had been the source of earlier controversies in the mid 1970s and early 1990s, when it was eventually relocated from its prominent position and secluded between railroad tracks and power lines behind a hotel and the aquarium. The other monuments targeted for removal were a statue of Jefferson Davis, former president of the so-called Confederate States of America, erected in 1911; one of Robert E. Lee, commander of the insurrectionist army, erected in 1884; and one of P. G. T. Beauregard, another Confederate general, albeit with ties to New Orleans, erected in 1915, seven years before my mother was born. The Davis statue was removed in the wee hours of the morning on May 11, the day after my mother’s funeral. The Beauregard monument, positioned on Bayou St. John at the entrance to City Park, was closest to my mother’s house; I have passed it every day that I’m here on the way to my walk through the park, a long block past her parish church and the cemetery where she is now buried, along with much of my family.
Each of the monuments has been “guarded” by ragtag bands of self-styled defenders of “heritage.” They are by and large a motley crew, mainly from out of town and outside the state. The group at the Beauregard monument was anchored by a small squad who were living in the park out of a camper on the back of a pickup truck that advertises a Florida pet grooming business with a license plate reading PET KARE. A bumper sticker under the Confederate battle flag in a camper window sports the familiar canard “heritage not hate.” The group’s apparent leader, or at least its Energizer Bunny, is a hardscrabble middle-aged woman whose generally animated performance suggests either crack or meth enthusiasm. Watching her engage with critics brings to mind the style of persuasion by intimidation practiced by the Black Hebrew Israelites who populate street corners in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. She frequently marched around the statue waving the Bonnie Blue original flag of the Confederacy, wearing a bush hat, halter top, shorts and sneakers, with what looks like a pistol butt protruding from the top of her shorts. Their posters link “heritage art,” praise for veterans and, incongruously, love of Israel. One reads “First Davis, Then Jesus;” another proclaims “Wake Up Amerika, Marxism Is Here.” As I passed them, I overheard a woman waving a Don’t Tread On Me flag mention to a fellow protester that she had to get something from her pastor.
The Jefferson Davis monument drew larger crowds of defenders, more heavily armed and boisterous, and including a man-bites-dog smattering of nonwhites, including among them a young black man wearing a hoodie that covered his face in the heat of the day, but also largely from out of town. They were usually doubled or more in size by supporters of taking the monuments down. For all their posturing and enacting professional wrestling cum "Red Dawn" cosplay fantasies, they melted away from the police presence at the moment of removal. Some of them then moved over to reinforce the crew at the Beauregard statue. The Lee statue was atop a ninety-foot pedestal at what was formerly Tivoli Circle or Place du Tivoli, a key node in the city, renamed Lee Circle, and soon to become Tricentennial Circle. It has also been a site of clashes between the largely out-of-towner “heritage” protesters and their opponents. As I wrote on my mother’s porch six days after her funeral, the Beauregard statue was being taken down, and Lee followed two and half days after. The performance should be over except the occasional hiccup, and the city will be rid of those public celebrations of slavery and white supremacy that I’m hardly alone in having detested all my life.
I got involved in a neighborhood chat group discussion of the issue that began with complaints that taking down the Davis monument, which was on a busy thoroughfare, interfered with some commuters’ route to work. Of course, that complaint was quickly revealed as sanitizing garnish on the real objection, which was that the city should not have removed any of the monuments. Soon enough, the back and forth descended into all the predictable canards from the “heritage” crowd. (During the early 1990s fight over the Liberty Monument, historic preservationists and Klansmen—including David Duke—formed a tight bloc, often hiding behind bogus assertions of the monument’s architectural significance.) Defenders resort to sophistries and dizzyingly self-contradictory turns away from historical facts to feelings and a reactionary multiculturalism:
● the monuments are part of our history and therefore shouldn’t be tampered with
● they don’t commemorate slavery or racism, just an abstract southern heritage;
● the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights and an abstract “way of life;”
● removing them only stirs up animosities, and we should let bygones be bygones;
● blacks celebrate their history; whites should be able to celebrate theirs;
● no one really cares about the monuments except opportunistic politicians;
● older black New Orleanians don’t care about the monuments; only young militants and agitators do;
● only older blacks scarred by racism in the past care about the monuments; younger blacks want to put the past behind us all and live as equals, not to keep fighting long-dead slaveholders;
● the monuments have aesthetic significance as distinctive representations of the architectural styles of their period;
● removing them is a diversion of public resources that would be better devoted to addressing more pressing municipal problems.
What’s striking about this discussion, as has been the case with all others like it I’ve read or participated in, is the absolute and intransigent refusal of defenders of Confederate commemoration to confront brute, unambiguous historical facts, beginning with the reasons for the treasonous rebellion. It’s almost Freudian that many Confederate denialists refer to the criminal insurrection as the “War of Northern Aggression,” although it was secessionists who rose in arms against the United States government and Confederate troops who initiated hostilities at Ft. Sumter. Beyond that, the most preposterous denial—either clinical, dishonest, ignorant, or some combination of the three—is the claim that the insurrection had any motivation apart from defense of slavery. Alexander Stephens, former Whig congressman from Georgia and Vice-President of the Confederacy, made clear in his famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” that “The new [i.e., Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” ...
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