Remove and replace?
New Orleans Confederate monuments are up for removal
By Sarah Sidlow
Illustration: Ron Rogers
Apparently, what happens in New Orleans might not always stay in New Orleans. In fact, a U.S. federal court ruled March 6 that NOLA has permission to move forward with the plan to remove three monuments many wish had never been erected. These prominently placed statues honor former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed for the removal of the monuments in 2015, after Dylann Roof’s racially inspired massacre at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church.
“This win today will allow us to begin to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future,” Landrieu says. “Moving the location of these monuments—from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered—changes only their geography, not our history.”
Many supported the move as a push against glorifying white supremacy, hatred, and a lot of other not-so-great things that are typically associated with the American Confederacy.
It’s expected that private dollars will fund the removal, and bids for contractors opened shortly after the ruling was made public. But contractors are finding it’s not quite that simple. That’s because some very passionate people want the statues to stay. Some dissenters made their point by sending death threats to the employees of the contractor initially hired to remove the monuments—and torched his Lamborghini.
As of the time this article went to print, the city hasn’t found another contractor willing to risk removing the monuments. The city doesn’t have its own equipment for the job, and sources indicate NOLA may be discussing the possibility of removing the statues under cover of darkness.
Before the appeals court verdict, groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Monumental Task Committee, Louisiana Landmarks Society, and the Foundation for Historical Louisiana argued that removing the monuments would cause irreparable harm and that the land they were located on may not be city property.
(That didn’t go over so well with the court, which voted to oust the statues and relocate them elsewhere.) Still, others argue that the purpose of historical monuments is to remind us of our past—all of it—and help us inform our future. If monuments only reflect contemporary values, why do we build them to last so long?
Fun fact: There’s also a fourth controversial monument, called the Battle of Liberty Place, which cannot be taken down because it’s subject to a federal court order. It’s an obelisk marking a post-war uprising by a white supremacy group called the White League, when they fought against Reconstruction in 1874.
Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate Forum Question of the Week:
Should we remove Confederate monuments?
The shallow South
Condemn racism by removing Confederate symbols
By Ben Tomkins
There is a mythological belief in the South that Confederate symbology and monuments need only outlast the recent memory of those who lived through the racism and violence they commemorate, in order to be baptized into the church of history and forgiven their sins. I myself spent three years living in Charleston, South Carolina, and passed by countless historic buildings and monuments to things both uplifting and vile. I have seen the Emanuel AME Church—a civil rights bastion and the site of the Charleston Massacre—as well as the Confederate flag flying with misplaced pride over the state capitol.
The response when I asked supporters of the flag about it was invariably the same. After repeating the school lunch menu of claims that it was a symbol of states’ rights and some nonsense about the Civil War being waged over secession rather than slavery, the increasing discomfort terminated with “It’s a Southern thing.” For all its pseudo-gentility, the phrase is nothing more than an extremely long piece of punctuation used by the Southerner to indicate the end of an awkward conversation, and a disappointing one at that.
It took the murder of nine black Charlestonians by a white supremacist in a church on the National Register of Historic Places for the irony of the phrase to sink into the state legislature of South Carolina, and the shockwave is finally making its way toward the western flanks of the ancient Confederacy.
Amid plans to remove monuments to Lee, Davis, and Beauregard from prominent locations in urban New Orleans, local opposition has made the traditional appeals to historicity and threats of homicide. Most importantly, Yankees like me should stay out of the conversation on the grounds that an outsider can’t understand these things.
Actually, over time, I’ve found I can do pretty well. History is written in books—at least in a lot of northern states—and with a modest effort, at a young age, I acquired the ability to read. If you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you managed to pull it off, too.
The first place I’d like to start reading is the front of the Jefferson Davis monument. It’s prominently located on Jefferson Davis Parkway, which, in and of itself, is questionable. Maybe it’s debatable as to whether someone should have to pass a monument on the way to work, but for a black person, I’d dearly love to know what it’s like to have to drive down the road of slavery itself to get to a job that pays something less than a living wage.
The inscription reads, in part, that Davis was a “profound student of the Constitution,” and that his memory is “inscribed in the hearts of the people for whom he suffered.” If history doesn’t make the case that this didn’t include black people, the fact that Jefferson Davis Memorial Association was chartered as a group for “white people” could be interpreted as…revealing.
And what are the lessons Davis and the Confederacy took from the Constitution? As murky as some Southerners would like to pretend these waters are in the name of “history,” they are faced with the same problem as Holocaust deniers: the leaders of the movement actually said it. In the Cornerstone Speech made by CSA (Confederate States of America) Vice President Alexander Stephens, the foundations of the Confederacy were categorically defined:
“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone [sic] rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
This is the problem of Confederate monuments. As the foundational principle of the Confederacy was white supremacy, so too do the monuments to its fallen warriors bear the stain of white supremacy on their plinths and in their mortar. It doesn’t just go away because a particular individual hasn’t been taught the speech in school and finds their familiarity soothing on the way to the French Quarter. As they were erected with private funds, perhaps private funds can see them removed to private lands, but no longer should they be inscribed on the public landscape in the name of “We the People.”
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Confederate monuments stand as necessary reminders of the past
By Tim Walker
We never really learn anything, do we? Apropos to what that old Spanish writer George Santayana famously said—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—we make lip service about learning from our mistakes and correcting our behavior in the future. We can change—no, really, we can. But what we’re really doing is lying to ourselves, every single time.
That co-worker who stumbles in on Monday morning bleary-eyed with a hangover will swear to God that he’ll never tie one on like that again, then he’ll go right out on St. Patrick’s Day and put down a keg of green beer and wake up in a ditch. And that lady friend who is constantly being mistreated by guys—the one who texts in the middle of the night because her man of the week took her money and left her stranded at a downtown bar at closing time? Yeah, she’ll be dating another loser in a few days, and he’ll be a carbon copy of every other dirt bag she’s dated since the day you met her.
Because we refuse to learn.
As a human race, we make the same mistakes, again and again and again. Santayana was right. We keep forgetting, and the past keeps repeating.
The Civil War was a dark chapter in this great nation’s history, one that pitted brother against brother on numerous battlefields. Slavery, racism, hatred, state’s rights—all of these issues are bundled up in the divisive conflict whose symbols, to this very day, can sir up individuals to the point of violence.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has this in mind, and he has the best intentions, I’m sure. He wants to remove three statues from their prominent places in New Orleans, because he feels that these statues glorify the ideals of racism and hatred that the memory of the Confederacy, correctly or not, has come to represent. The statues—of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis—were declared public nuisances by the city council in late 2015, and the city wants them moved to less prominent locations. The fact that the Lee and Davis statues currently reside in parks named after them doesn’t seem to be an issue.
But you can’t whitewash the past, can you? If you think that simply removing or moving these monuments will somehow alter the perceptions and memories of those who still carry the torch for the Confederacy, you’re wrong. Trying to erase our history, however uncomfortable it may be, is misguided and doomed to failure. You can take a marker to the library, go through a copy of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and mark out every single offensive term in those pages—the N-word is used by Twain 219 times in the book—and it isn’t going to change anything. As a matter of fact, I suggest that you’re going to do more harm than good because, once again, you’re trying to whitewash the past: to pretend that what once existed didn’t, to forget, and therefore condemn yourself to repeat.
This week, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a district court that had ruled the city of New Orleans could go ahead with the removal of the three statues because the plaintiffs who opposed the removal weren’t likely to prevail. The court said plaintiffs in the case hadn’t proven their argument that removing the statues would bring irreparable harm.
The generals’ statues, after more than a century of residence, have become part of the local landscape, in addition to gaining listings in the National Register of Historic Places. Important period sculptor Alexander Doyle, who has several other works scattered around the city, executed each monument. Two of the figures played a positive role in area race relations after the war. Beauregard, who served as a state and local official, advocated during Reconstruction for voting rights for blacks. Lee, by his battlefield surrender and counseling in favor of peace and against continued military activity, helped spare the South from complete ruin and speeded the end of slavery.
I say the statues need to remain. I say attempts to alter our perceptions of what once happened are misguided and foolish. At our peril, the past must be remembered. The reason that we have a museum in Washington that is devoted entirely to remembering the Holocaust is very simple—never forget. Do not allow history, the passage of time, and the work of those who would cloud your perceptions cause you to ever forget that this was real, that this happened, that these people suffered and perished.
We cannot change the past. But if we remember it, if we learn from it and teach our young people, then maybe—just maybe—we will not be condemned to repeat it.
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys
pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach him at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.