Heaven knows there are bigger issues facing our community, but the monuments controversy is creating tension where it did not exist. We do not question the sincerity of Mayor Mitch Landrieu for, in effect, mandating that four Civil War-related monuments should be removed. We do argue, however, that the reaction and strong feeling shows that the issue runs deeper than anyone might have imagined. This is not as much about race as it is about perceived government intrusion. Some people see the monuments as symbols of slavery (though Robert E. Lee was opposed to it and General Beauregard would later in his career advocate integrated schools and public places); others see them as part of the backdrop to the city’s history.
For that reason, we urge that the current ordinance calling for the monuments’ removal be shelved. (The ordinance is based on a shaky verbal premise anyway. The monuments may be controversial, but they are not “nuisances” as the ordinance describes them.) Instead, a Blue Ribbon committee should be created and given a year to develop a comprehensive monuments plan which will ultimately have to be approved by the council and mayor.
Truth is, there was no genuine debate about the monuments before the council vote was taken. What goes on at council hearings is less about intellectual discourse and more resembling mud wrestling. Blue Ribbon committees can work effectively, as was seen in the 1992 Carnival desegregation ordinance crisis, which was far testier than the monuments issue has ever been. Working with City Hall, the biracial committee developed a compromise ordinance that has worked successfully.
Much of the effort to save the monuments has been steered by a nonprofit group, the Monumental Task Committee, Inc. The group has worked to care for and protect all of the city’s monuments. We concur with its four points about the current controversy:
• It (the task force) does not support the removal of any city monuments, especially those that have graced the city’s landscape for over a century.
• It does not consider any of the city’s monuments to be “nuisances.”
• It encourages the installation of new monuments to forgotten heroes or historic events.
• It supports the installation of interpretive plaques to aid in the ongoing discussion that puts monuments in a more current context.
To the question of racial imbalance among local monuments, a task force member suggests that the answer should be not to take away existing monuments, but to add new ones. One idea is to erect a monument at the Desaix Boulevard traffic circle near the Fair Grounds, perhaps to Allen Toussaint or as a tribute to Mardi Gras Indians or Louis Armstrong. Standing near to the Fair Grounds, the statue would point the way to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Something all of those represented by monuments have in common is that they all stood for a cause. Right or wrong, they had a voice to be heard. It is in the tradition of citizenship to speak out. Though six of the seven council members voted to remove the monuments, we sensed they were not happy with the issue. Polls show their near unanimous vote certainly did not match the beliefs of the city at large. There needs to be an orderly process where more analysis can be done, more voices heard. We are not talking about just screaming to the TV cameras or claiming racial discrimination and oppression, but developing a plan that is fair to our history. With the coming of the city’s Tricentennial the task is even more worthy.
If the day comes that the monuments are removed there will be international media attention, especially as the best known of the landmarks, the Lee statue, is taken away. Some will see the action as a victory for political correctness; others will see it as the reaction of a city that failed to grasp the complexity of its history.