Why I’m tak­ing down Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in New Or­leans

Mayor Mitch Lan­drieu says we shouldn’t put Amer­i­can his­tory’s ugli­est chap­ters on pedestals

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @May­orLan­drieu Mitch Lan­drieu is the mayor of New Or­leans.

Last month, New Or­leans be­gan the lon­gover­due process of re­mov­ing four stat­ues hon­or­ing the lost, and im­moral, Con­fed­er­ate cause. This past week, we con­tin­ued the job. Get­ting here wasn’t easy. It took a two-year re­view process, a city coun­cil vote and vic­to­ries over mul­ti­ple le­gal chal­lenges. The orig­i­nal con­trac­tor we’d hired to re­move the mon­u­ments backed out af­ter re­ceiv­ing death threats and hav­ing one of his cars set ablaze. Nearly ev­ery heavy-crane com­pany in south­ern Louisiana has re­ceived threats from op­po­nents. Some have likened these mon­u­ments to other mon­u­ments around the world from by­gone eras, and have ar­gued that civic re­sources would be bet­ter spent try­ing to ed­u­cate the pub­lic about the his­tory they em­body. Re­spect­fully, that’s not the point. As mayor, I must con­sider their im­pact on our en­tire city. It’s my job to chart the course ahead, not to sim­ply ven­er­ate the past.

More than al­most any other city in the world, New Or­leans is truly a city of many na­tions. Be­tween the na­tive Choctaw, Houma Na­tion and Chiti­macha tribes, the colo­nial ex­plor­ers de Soto and de La Salle, the Aca­di­ans, the Haitians, the Senegam­bians and other African na­tions, the im­pe­rial pow­ers of France and Spain, and ul­ti­mately the United States, our city is a cross­sec­tion of hu­man­ity in all its col­ors and cul­tures. In re­cent decades, our Viet­namese and Latino com­mu­ni­ties have flour­ished. We are a melt­ing pot, a gumbo. That is our strength.

But New Or­leans was also Amer­ica’s largest slave mar­ket: a port where hun­dreds of thou­sands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mis­sis­sippi River to lives of mis­ery and tor­ture. Our his­tory is for­ever in­ter­twined with that of our great na­tion — in­clud­ing its most ter­ri­ble sins. We must al­ways re­mem­ber our his­tory and learn from it. How­ever, that doesn’t mean we must val­orize the ugli­est chap­ters, as we do when we put the Con­fed­er­acy on a pedestal — lit­er­ally — in our most prom­i­nent pub­lic places.

The record is clear: New Or­leans’s Robert E. Lee, Jef­fer­son Davis and P.G.T. Beau­re­gard stat­ues were erected with the goal of rewrit­ing his­tory to glo­rify the Con­fed­er­acy and per­pet­u­ate the idea of white supremacy. These mon­u­ments stand not as mourn­ful mark­ers of our legacy of slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion, but in rev­er­ence of it. They are an in­ac­cu­rate recita­tion of our past, an af­front to our present and a poor pre­scrip­tion for our fu­ture.

The right course, then, is to ex­cise these sym­bols of in­jus­tice. The Bat­tle of Lib­erty Place monument was not built to com­mem­o­rate the fallen law en­force­ment of­fi­cers of the racially in­te­grated New Or­leans po­lice and state mili­tia. It was meant to honor mem­bers of the Cres­cent City White League, the peo­ple who killed them. That kind of “honor” has no place in an Amer­i­can city. So, last month, we took the monument down.

This past week, we be­gan the re­moval of a statue hon­or­ing Davis, and soon there­after Lee and Beau­re­gard. It won’t erase his­tory. But we can be­gin a new chap­ter of New Or­leans’s his­tory by plac­ing these mon­u­ments, and the legacy of op­pres­sion they rep­re­sent, in mu­se­ums and other spa­ces where they can be viewed in an ap­pro­pri­ate ed­u­ca­tional set­ting as ex­am­ples of our ca­pac­ity to change.

Af­ter we’re done moving these mon­u­ments, we’ ll face an even greater task: com­ing to­gether to de­cide who we are as a city — and as a na­tion. Over the past few years, be­fore the monument re­moval ef­fort, we be­gan Wel­come Ta­ble New Or­leans, which fa­cil­i­tates tough conversations about race and brings var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties to­gether on projects in their neigh­bor­hoods. As part of our work, res­i­dents have dis­cussed and de­signed rec­on­cil­i­a­tion projects, such as a mu­ral and oral-his­tory project on what was once part of a plan­ta­tion, as mon­u­ments to the fu­ture, not the past.

His­tory, un­for­tu­nately, has seen great na­tions be­come lost, iso­lated and ul­ti­mately ex­tinct by re­fus­ing to con­front the sins of the past and evolve to meet the de­mands of a chang­ing world. If we don’t want to be for­ever held back by our crush­ing his­tory of in­sti­tu­tional racism, it’s time to rel­e­gate these mon­u­ments to their proper place.

Last year, when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama opened the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, he spoke of the need to con­tex­tu­al­ize our his­tory through one of the mu­seum’s most telling ar­ti­facts: a slave auc­tion block with a marker not­ing that Andrew Jack­son and Henry Clay had once spo­ken from atop it. “For a long time the only thing we con­sid­ered im­por­tant, the sin­gu­lar thing we once chose to com­mem­o­rate as his­tory, with a plaque,” Obama said, “were the un­mem­o­rable speeches of two pow­er­ful men” — not the fam­i­lies “sold and bid like cat­tle” on that same spot.

Just like the de­ci­sion to pub­licly rec­og­nize the tragic sig­nif­i­cance of that stone, re­mov­ing New Or­leans’s Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments from places of promi­nence is an ac­knowl­edg­ment that it is time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our his­tory. Any­thing less would ren­der gen­er­a­tions of coura­geous strug­gle and soul-search­ing a truly lost cause.

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