EspañolOn Thursday, December 17, the City Council of New Orleans, Louisiana, will decide the fate of four confederate monuments erected more than a century ago in various sectors of the iconic North American city. The vote, which takes place in a special meeting at 10 a.m., comes six months after Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared the monuments a “nuisance” and called for their removal from public grounds.
The mayor’s proposal is just one example of the many contentious debates occurring across the country concerning the role of historic symbols and namesakes in public areas, and the process by which these decisions are made. This is especially true of those monuments commemorating individuals and causes who committed certain acts or held beliefs generally accepted in the past, yet don’t mesh with today’s social and cultural norms.
Landrieu’s announcement in July ensued shortly after the South Carolina state legislature passed a bill removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds. The historic legislation came in response to the massacre of nine black individuals carried out by self-proclaimed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Many attribute the bill’s passage to the incredible displays of forgiveness by the victims’ families towards Roof, whose pictures (and racist manifesto) on social media show him with the controversial flag.
Personally, the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol was an unambiguous decision and the right one. While I’m sure several in South Carolina genuinely view the flag as a symbol of heritage and respect for their ancestors — like numerous proud southerns across the region do — there are many, if not more, who only see the flag as a symbol of hate and oppression. A symbol as paradoxical as this one should not fly over the state house of government where the voices of all are represented.
However, what Mayor Landrieu is proposing in New Orleans is distinctly different and the manner by which he is going about it is problematic. The four monuments targeted for removal are the statues honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T Beauregard, and an obelisk recognizing the fallen members of the White League at the Battle of Liberty Place, which occurred during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War in 1874.
In his address to the city on July 9, Mayor Landrieu said: “This discussion isn’t about them (those honored in the past); it is about us, the people of New Orleans and our beloved city … and through facilitated conversations … New Orleans will find a way forward in regard to these four Confederate monuments.”
Yet, the only way forward appears to be their removal. Until last Thursday, not a single public hearing had taken place before the City Council since the process began. And the only “conversations” transpiring have been between the mayor and city panels, whom critics say are dominated by Landrieu appointees. As the Baton Rouge Advocate points out, the entire process seems to be an autocratic one led by Landrieu, rather than a democratic one, as we saw in South Carolina.
Since the removal of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina, a wave of presentism towards monuments and namesakes has swept the country, causing many of us to ask: where do we draw the line?
Recently, students at Princeton University demanded the removal of former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings, due to his racist views and actions while in office (1913-1921). Over the summer, Yale University students called for the renaming of the building currently named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun (1825-1832). A man of many accomplishments and one of the great statesmen in US history, the South Carolina native also staunchly defended slavery. For Yale students, that was too heavy a burden.
Based on this criteria, should we consider tearing down Jefferson Memorial or renaming Washington, DC? Even though Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were fundamental to the founding of our country and the principles we still hold dear today, they did own slaves, after all.
What about Mount Rushmore? Should we demolish the world-famous sculpture of former President Theodore Roosevelt? This is the man who lived according to the code set forth in his New York speech in 1886: “… I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”
I don’t mean to be tongue and cheek, as this is a very complex issue, but the “conversation” that Mayor Landrieu and college student groups want to have is heading in this direction. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Landrieu’s proposal is the false choice he advocates: an up or down vote on removal.
The fact that no other alternatives were offered by the administration speaks to the haste with which this proposal was submitted, and casts doubt on the mayor’s true motives, which I assume are well-intentioned.
New Orleans, which turns 300 years old in 2018, is arguably the most historical city in the United States. As I’ve written previously, its history not only defines the city, it continues to keep it economically afloat. But behind all the history and symbols is a city with a plethora of problems. Poor education, violence, and extreme poverty have plagued this great city since its founding. Is tearing down a couple of statues going to improve this?
In 2012, instead of removing a controversial confederate monument, the University of Louisville in Kentucky constructed Freedom Park next to it, which honors the “history of African Americans in Louisville and the commonwealth in the context of the universal struggle for freedom.”
Now residents and visitors, alike, can experience the valiant stories of countless African Americans, and then walk down the street and learn about the very men and their ideas they fought against.
And that’s where I think the “conversation” should begin in New Orleans, because, as Walt Whitman said, “as soon as histories are properly told, there is no more need of romances.”