Suppose you had been living in New Orleans in 1874 and were of fighting age, when a friend asked you to go with him to Canal Street where trouble was brewing. Facing off with each other were two groups: one carrying a name that would never be acceptable today, “The White Citizens League,” also identified with the “Democrats,” versus the other group, the “Republicans,” who were perceived as being out-of-towners and who had taken control of the state with the backing of federal troops. They were seen as being corrupt, incompetent and not representative of local people.
Now you, being a decent person, believed all the right things. You were:
• Anti-anything evoking white supremacy
Despite all that, you could have also been strongly anti-carpetbaggers. To you this wasn’t about the Civil War, which had ended nine years earlier, but about control.
There was a huge showdown and some people were killed and injured. The insurgents took over the space at the nearby statehouse where the Republican State government had been operating. That only lasted for a few days until federal troops came and cleared out the insurgents, and perhaps you. Three years later Reconstruction would end, the federal troops would leave and the Democrats who regain local control.
In 1891, the city built a monument to commemorate the activity on Canal Street. That in itself was probably OK, the battle at Liberty Place was truly an historic event and certainly reflected the pressures of the time. Unfortunately in 1932 an inscription was added to the monument boasting about “white supremacy.” At that point the monument took on a new meaning and a new burden. In 1974 the city did the smart thing by adding a plaque, which talked about the battle in historical context, but distancing itself from the added inscriptions. In 1993 the monument, having been declared a “nuisance,” was moved from Canal Street to a more hidden location near Canal Place. There it might have stood in peaceful recognition of the historic artifact that is. Unfortunately its reputation got stained again in 2004 when David Duke called it a monument to “White Pride.”
Overlooked is the inscription that the city added after it moved the monument in 1993. In one of City Hall’s finest moments of historic discretion, someone added these words:
“In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place … A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”
Curiously in 1964, the Democrats – for so long the party of white pride and the solid South and who in another era worked to reduce black voter registration – became the favored party of blacks and other minorities when it, under Lyndon Johnson championed Civil Rights, voting rights and federal social programs. Eventually the Republicans underwent a shift too –they would become the party of the native middle class.
Wherever you might have stood during all this time, you might have noticed how the ground kept shifting beneath you. Being on the right side of history is often a battle unto itself.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH “Informed Sources,” Fridays at 7 p.m., repeated at 11:30 p.m. on WYES-TV, Ch. 12.