Saturday, May 27, 2017

Of mayors, monuments and miscreants

The dust has settled and only the rhetoric remains as the last of the four statues decried as public nuisances first by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and later in a 2015 city ordinance - that of Robert E. Lee - finally came down last weekend. We've had a lot of painful memories stirred up by the controversy as the flames of racism were fanned by radicals on both sides.

The deed is done. The monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was essentially an attempt to overthrow both the yoke of Reconstruction and the gubernatorial election of 1874 by the Crescent City White League, was probably the most egregious of the statues. A plaque added in 1932 during the Depression had attempted to rewrite the history of that bloody battle quelled by federal troops, fallaciously indicating that it had established white supremacy in the state. Enlightened and embarrassed city officials in the post Civil Rights Era in 1973 added yet another plaque on the side of the monument, noting that while the history of the battle was important, the previous sentiments were not in line with modern revisionist and inclusive thinking. The statue was used as a rallying point for David Duke and others for decades and had been taken down during street work in 1989. Its placement on the federally protected National Register forced city officials to restore the monument, but had it relocated to a less visible area in the French Quarter.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was also allowed to be erected at a time when blacks enjoyed little political voice. Davis never sought reconciliation and was an apologist for the Confederacy, contributing to the philosophy of the "Lost Cause," wherein the secession from the Union was justified as reactionary to Northern aggression and the Old South with its plantation economy built on slavery was romanticized as an idyllic way of life.

The last two statues depicted two larger than life figures - Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard. Again, the lack of political pushback from former slaves and their descendants and others who might have pointed out that celebrating military figures who lost a war might not be practical or in the best of taste. Beauregard and Lee, however, did advocate for reconciliation between the states. Beauregard in particular pushed for integration and full rights for the emancipated population. His equestrian statue might have survived scrutiny had he not been shown in full military regalia.

In the weeks leading up to the removal of the four monuments, dozens of outsiders - many of which were hate groups and white supremacists - descended upon the city, unfurling Confederate and other splinter group flags. New Orleanians who had lived with the monuments, oftentimes oblivious to what they represented to the black populace, were sometimes offended more by the methods of removal and the attempt to rewrite history. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being on the same side as members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy.

The organized forces known as Take 'em Down, who agreed with the mayor and the City Council that the four objects needed to be removed, were as vitriolic as the other side. They had flags and banners on their side too as they marched through the city or confronted each other as vigilant New Orleans Police Department officers separated and watched the two factions. Take 'em Down has indicated that it wants to continue to advocate for changing the names of streets bearing Confederate personages or former slaveowners and take down other iconic statues such as that of Andrew Jackson at Jackson Square in the Vieux Carré. Understandably, there is major pushback there for those that still consider Jackson "the hero of the Battle of New Orleans."

It is sad that the polarization of the city these days has sprung up over monuments of bronze, brick and mortar. The city of New Orleans has largely enjoyed a different kind of culture than that found in other areas of the South. Mardi Gras has always been a unique celebration that has unified the city and from its earliest days Creole culture has embraced many non-Caucasian ethnicities. What endures more than statues and obelisks is the humanity of its people and their capacity to love one another.

Now that this bitter chapter has ended, we should all hope that this is the beginning of a positive era of better relations and that we should all mind our own fences. As a city, New Orleans will be celebrating its tricentennial next year. We need to hold high the official flag of New Orleans and proudly declare that we will chart our own destiny, not let outsiders decide for us what we want and try not to erase history, but learn from it.