Last Friday, workers hauled away the sixteen-foot-tall, bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal in the heart of New Orleans. The Lee statue was the last of four monuments removed by the city commemorating white supremacy. In 2015, the murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof prompted New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to begin the effort to remove the monuments. While Landrieu won the support of the City Council, his efforts have not met with universal support. Landrieu warded off numerous legal challenges, including an effort earlier this month to avert the removal of the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard by claiming it belonged to the state and not the city. Last week, the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill banning the removal of war monuments on public property without approval from a majority of the population. The vote prompted the Legislative Black Caucus to march out of the House Chamber in disgust. The continuing debate over the removal of these monuments has revealed the inherent contradiction between a city that prides itself on inclusiveness, but, for decades promoted white supremacy.
In a speech commemorating the removal of the Lee statue, Mayor Landrieu pointed out that New Orleans’ history is that of “truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling cauldron of many cultures.” Yet, the history of the Crescent City, as told through its monuments, travel literature, and promotional material, had largely ignored the history of African-Americans. As Landrieu noted, “there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame.” The city, Landrieu stressed, could not live up to its ideals of inclusiveness while still hosting monuments to Lee, Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the victory of a white supremacist militia over the city’s multi-racial police force in 1874. Landrieu related how, “Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?”
For decades, these statues have represented the triumph of white Southerners and the erasure of African-Americans. At the heart of this Lost Cause narrative—one taught in schools and perpetuated by organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans—is the idea that the Confederacy and its leaders stood for something noble, something worth fighting for. They fought for states’ rights, defenders say, or southern men fought to protect their honor. Men like Lee, Beauregard, and Davis fought for what they believed in and we should honor and respect them for that. These explanations offer everything but the historical truth. The Civil War was fought over slavery. Lee, Beauregard, and Davis committed treason, fighting against the nation they swore oaths to protect. The founders of the Confederacy viewed African-American slavery as a positive good and created a whole new country to preserve and protect it. The defenders of the monuments and the Lost Cause ideology they represent ignore these ugly truths. Instead, these monuments obfuscate the past, as Mayor Landrieu explained, “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
The legacies of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era have taken a disproportionate toll on African-Americans in New Orleans and Louisiana. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 60% of the population of New Orleans is African-American. The city, to this day, remains largely segregated with African-Americans residing in New Orleans East and Gentilly, while whites primarily live in the French Quarter, Central Business District, Lower Garden, and Uptown neighborhoods like City Park and Lakeview. In 2015, the City of New Orleans had the fourth highest murder rate of any major city. In 2012, 78% of victims of homicides in the state of Louisiana were black. The combination of the state’s extreme poverty (third poorest state in the country), easy access to guns, recurring budget crises, and sky-high rates of incarceration (incarceration policies that descend from Jim Crow) all contribute to the high murder rate. Economically, the divide is similarly stark. In 2015, the average white family in New Orleans had a median income of $62,074 compared to the median income of the average black family of $26,819. The impact of slavery and segregation still lingers today in Louisiana.
In order to make any progress, as Mayor Landrieu argues, “We need to change. And we need to change now. No more waiting. This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain.” Let’s hope ridding the city of those statues is the first step in the right direction.