A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL
We listened intently as Mayor Mitch Landrieu made the case for removing the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and Liberty Monument as well as renaming Lee Circle and Jefferson Davis Parkway.
Those symbols—monuments that remind us of the bigotry that permeated our nation and that still exists in some measure today—“do not reflect who we are and who we aspire to be,” Mayor Landrieu said.“To maintain these symbols as we move toward our future blights our progress.”
Of course, that makes sense. And it sure sounds nice. We would like to believe that structures such as Liberty Monument, erected by the Crescent City White League in 1891 to honor the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, do not speak to who and what New Orleans is in 2015. If we were not before, we are now—all of us—better people, right?
Funny thing is we’ve been here before. In our own 30-year history, The New Orleans Tribune has certainly broached this subject. In 2002, our founding editor and esteemed columnist James Borders wrote the following:
“In New Orleans, we wouldn’t still be tolerating the indignity of having a statue of the defeated Civil War traitor Robert E. Lee towering over a prominent intersection (with its back—some say its behind—turned to the north in true unreconstructed redneck fashion). It is a blatant and intentional symbol of racism and white supremacy—and it needs to go. By the same token, we should have found a new name for Jefferson Davis Boulevard and a new home for the Confederate Museum many years ago.”
Furthermore, Mayor Landrieu was not the first mayor to initiate an effort to rename or remove symbols of the Confederacy from New Orleans’ public spaces. We recall Mayor Sidney Barthelemy tackled this issue during his tenure in the early 90s. He and the City Council faced opposition led by White supremacist David Duke in an effort to have Liberty Monument declared a nuisance and removed. Mayor Bartholomew shrewdly relocated the monument to the river end of Iberville Street between a parking garage and a flood wall, where we are certain thousands of folk that honor that time in history visit it daily. Right.
It seems that discussions and debate over the twisted allegiance of the South to Confederate symbols come and go like the seasons. Well, it flared once again in recent weeks after Dylann Roof’s racially-charged mass murder of nine Black South Carolinians as they prepared for weekly church Bible study made national headlines. His proclamations of White supremacy and a photo of Roof next to a Confederate flag have reignited this debate across the nation. Television networks have pulled re-runs of The Dukes of Hazzard off the air, Black women are yanking Confederate flags off polls. There have been anti-Confederate flag protests here. And people are coming up with the most ridiculous versions of His-story we have ever heard to justify their loyalty to all things Confederate. Robert E. Lee should be celebrated because he is the father of the modern-day levee system, one Lee advocate tells. Really, you’re going with that? That’s the detail you want to highlight to convince New Orleanians 10 years after Hurricane Katrina that Robert E. Lee is a hero?
Truth is these softened, innocuous revisions of what really happened are just plain asinine. Let’s call the so-called Battle of Liberty Place what it was—an act of domestic terrorism in which a band of criminal White supremacists killed and injured local and state law enforcement officers in an attempt to overthrow the duly-elected government. About 41 years after the monument was erected, an inscription was added to make clear the battle’s role in establishing White supremacy. That fact makes it nearly impossible not to agree that such a vestige should be taken down once and for all, even from its obscure setting on Iberville Street, where Mayor Barthelemey tucked it away many years ago, and finally thrown out like the trash it is. There should be no debate. Really, do we need the Human Rights Commission or the Welcome Table to muse on this matter?
And there is our first issue with the whole deal. That there is even a deliberation on the topic is one reason we don’t have time for it.
So we will offer this editorial; and then, we are done. We got 99 problems, and Lee Circle ain’t one.
Yes, we listened to the mayor and heard the many New Orleanians that followed his speech to make their case—one way or the other—as to why these symbols that pay deference to a dark period in America’s history should or should not be removed.
One citizen, a Black man in favor of removing the symbols said they “define us and remind us of injustices of the past.” He called the statues in question “obvious symbols of White supremacy” that should be removed. Taxpayer dollars should not be used for the upkeep and maintenance of these divisive symbols of hate, many supporters of taking them down echoed.
Another, a White woman who spoke in favor of keeping the monuments in their current locations commented that she resented “being stripped of (her) heritage.” Others who share her view try to convince us that we merely misunderstand history and the role these men played. Or they try to draw parallels between Confederate and other symbols closely associated with the Black Power movement. They boldly ask questions such as how would we feel if someone started taking down such Black Panther Party flags, which by the way do not hang in a single public space in New Orleans or any where in this nation to the best of our knowledge. It is an idiotic comparison. But what can you do? Hate and ignorance are first cousins, you know. Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from India, has folk scratching their heads with his declaration that talk of removing Confederate symbols attacks his heritage. Say what?
In all, the public comment period—beginning with the mayor’s remarks—lasted well over an hour. In the end, the City Council voted unanimously to direct the Human Rights Commission to start the official process of considering and then recommending whether these monuments and site names stay or go.
To be clear, the recent cogitations regarding the Confederate symbols in New Orleans were merely to initiate a review and recommendation process expected to last about two months. Well, God bless the souls that have picked this battle, but count us out here at The New Orleans Tribune.
Don’t get us wrong, we do not dismiss those many citizens who want see the these monuments taken out of the public space. We just don’t agree with the amount of power they have attributed to these symbols, names and statues. And we do not believe that all of the time and energy that have been and will be given to this effort are well served. As such, we will reserve our work and voices for more tangible issues. And while we don’t demean those who have taken up this cause, we believe that whatever these symbols stand or stood for pale in comparison to the problems facing us today or even the ones that haunt our more recent history. Efforts to focus on them now only sidetrack us. They distract from the real plagues and blights, serious scourges—problems of the non-symbolic variety—that stain our nation, state and city.
Robert E. Lee didn’t steal our public schools or fire more than 7,500 mostly Black school employees or create this all-charter school system that is failing our children miserably. We know who did that…and they are not made of stone.
P.G.T. Beauregard didn’t tear down public housing at a time when many poor Black New Orleanians were still trying to return to the city and find a place to call home.
Jefferson Davis did not privatize recreation in New Orleans or prisons in the state. He didn’t prevent the re-opening of Charity Hospital. The individuals responsible for those actions are living and breathing…and some are still leading.
The Crescent City White Citizens League did not hold hush-hush meetings behind closed doors in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, scheming to keep Black citizenry from coming back to New Orleans with their plans for green space in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and their grand designs for a smaller, wealthier, more splendid and ostensibly Whiter city.
Well, then again…
Uhhh…let’s just…we’re gonna put a pin there…
Yes, of course we get the historical and social context of it all. We understand what these symbols represent; and not for a second are we fooled by the “heritage, not hate” rhetoric. If you pay homage to these symbols you pay homage to an undeserving time when hate, bigotry and terror reigned. If you pay homage to these symbols, you may want to reflect on your world view; but do it on your own time.
We got 99 problems, and Lee Circle ain’t one!
If you are going to take them down, take them down. Why do we have to debate, discuss or dissect this issue. One thing living in New Orleans, Louisiana—especially in the 10 years since Katrina—has taught us is that when the powers that be really want to do something, they just do it. They make it happen! State leaders didn’t debate for 60 days when they hijacked public schools in New Orleans—a decision which will impact our children for generations and that disenfranchises every local voter and taxpayer. Fast-forward about nine years; and before the people of New Orleans even realized it happened, the state legislature once again pulls a slick move, passing a bill the captures local sales tax for the use of the unelected charter school boards. But we are supposed to spend 60 days talking about statues? Hell, that’s how they get you. While we’re talking about statues, they’re taking over the world!
If you know like us, you’d worry less about Lee, Beauregard, and Davis; and pay a lot more attention to Peterson, Badon, Murray, Bishop, and Morrell…oh and Moreno, Arnold, Leger, and Lorusso, too.
You see, however offensive these objects are, we see them for what they really are—symbols; and instead of fighting the symbols that insult and offend us, we would much rather fight the deeds that harm and hurt us and monitor the conduct of the individuals that are elected to represent us.
Forgive us—or not—for feeling this way, but we are just talking about stone figurines and embellished fabric—flags and statues. So, nope, we are not about to have a fit over these symbols, when atrocities have occurred and continue to occur under other symbols that we see daily, ones that we are actually expected to pay deference too, such as, let’s see, the American flag. Honestly, if we’re gonna start taking down symbols, let’s start there.
Slavery existed under the American flag.
It was under the American flag that Black New Orleanians—citizens of this nation—were called refugees as they fled the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and broken levees while the federal government took its sweet time to act.
Jim Crow was institutionalized and supported under the American flag. Let us not forget, it was a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (not the Supreme Court of the Confederacy) that upheld the separate, but equal doctrine. And it took a ruling—not a symbol—of the Court to undo it. Even after that, it took years of civil action to turn the law of the land into reality.
So you see, here’s the truth. Symbols do not define us, not really. They only have as much power as we give them. We define us. How we think, how we resist and fight against those things that are wrong, what we do, our actions or lack thereof—those are the things that determine who we are and where we are going, what we believe in and what is important to us. No statue or flag has the power.
And don’t misunderstand, everyone in this debate is a bit misguided, as we see it.
If all of the Lee lovers would get real for one moment, this would not even be an issue. Seriously, when was the last time you looked at Robert E. Lee’s statue or any of the others for that matter? We mean really looked at one—not just drove by one or walked passed one—but actually paid so-called homage to it? We got good money on half of y’all not even knowing exactly where the Liberty Monument has been moved. And Lee’s monument is 60 feet in the air—60 feet. You have to break your neck to get any kind of view of the statue itself. Unless there are some New Orleanians with some major Goliath issues, we’re all pretty much eye-balling the bottom six feet of a stone column. Yet, as we understand, thousands of you are rallying, collecting signatures for a petition and organizing on social media—fighting to keep these Confederate symbols a part of the city’s landscape, fighting to pay homage to a bunch of losers—literally. Quite frankly, it doesn’t get much pettier than that.
The one good thing about all of that is now we know for sure where you are coming from.
And for us, we got problems. This whole city has problems.
Mass incarceration rate, the highest in the world to be exact . . .
Escalating crime . . .
A deplorable, failing, quasi-privatized public education system…
Homelessness . . .
Unemployment of Black men at 52 percent . . .
Lack of economic parity . . .
But for now, stone, marble, granite statues and monuments, symbols, names of streets and traffic circles just don’t seem to make our list.
So we will offer this editorial; and then, we are done. We got 99 problems, and Lee Circle ain’t one.