The history behind New Orleans’ long fight to remove its Confederate monuments

A court ruling officially allows New Orleans to remove four Confederate monuments, but history might get in the way.

New Orleans’ monument to Jefferson Davis may finally come down. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
New Orleans’ monument to Jefferson Davis may finally come down. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

New Orleans quickly kicked off the process to take down monuments to the Confederacy around town after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the city the green light last week. Within 24 hours, the city listed bid documents for contractors to remove the monuments, with the intent of hiring a company by April.

The lower court’s decision, affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, was fairly straightforward: the city owned the statues, and had the right to move them. But the battle over New Orleans’ white supremacist symbols has always been far more emotionally and politically complicated than a simple property dispute.

Though New Orleans is a majority black, left-leaning city, its repeated efforts to rid itself of Confederate imagery have been thwarted by white supremacists and Confederate heritage groups for decades.

A history of intimidation

The last contractor hired by the city to take down monuments to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard in 2015 backed out after a few weeks of death threats and harassment. The company’s owner, David Mahler, said he and his wife had received threatening phone calls at home. Mahler’s car was torched a week after he pulled out of the deal.

For months afterward, the city struggled to find a contractor willing to take on the risk of angering Confederate supporters. At a meeting in 2016, one potential bidder asked if the work could be done at night in order to avoid attention, while another asked if they would have to post a sign with their name at the construction sites. The city ultimately put the bidding process on hold while the court battle over the monuments played out, citing safety concerns.

Now that the court has affirmed the city’s right to take down the monuments, New Orleans is trying to minimize the blowback. The mayor’s office told Nola.com that it will keep the names of bidding contractors secret, and the process of dismantling the monuments will be funded by an anonymous donor. Still, the city must publicly disclose whoever ultimately wins the contract, which may make some companies skittish.

The anger and violence now being directed at city employees has been a feature of the decades-long debate over the monuments.

The battle for Liberty Place

A federal judge also gave New Orleans permission on Wednesday to take down a fourth monument, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the “most offensive” of all. The granite obelisk commemorates the battle of Liberty Place, a white supremacist uprising against New Orleans’ briefly biracial government during Reconstruction. Two years after the Crescent City White League’s attack on white and black police officers, the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes brought Reconstruction-era racial equality efforts crashing down and allowed southern states to enact segregation and racial terror.

In 1932, an inscription was added to the obelisk explicitly celebrating the triumph of “white supremacy” over the “carpetbag government.” The inscription read:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).

The monument stood in the middle of downtown New Orleans until 1989, when it was removed for street construction. By then, the New Orleans City Council preferred to warehouse the obelisk indefinitely; the city’s first black mayor, Dutch Morial, had unsuccessfully tried to remove it a decade earlier.

But Ku Klux Klan leader and former state representative David Duke used it as a rallying symbol, at one point marching around it shouting “white power” and “all the way with the KKK.” One of his supporters sued to force the city to put the monument back in place. As a result, in 1993, a federal judge ordered the city to put the obelisk back on display.

The city complied, but placed it in a less prominent area next to a parking garage, with an additional plaque honoring the police officers who were killed in the insurrection — which the new inscription carefully calls “a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.” This compromise did not appease civil rights activists nor the monuments’ defenders, who called for the removal of the new plaque and restoration of the obelisk to its original downtown location.

The monument to a white supremacist uprising in downtown New Orleans. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The monument to a white supremacist uprising in downtown New Orleans. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

David Duke and his followers continued to use the Liberty Monument as a platform for their values. Duke held a rededication ceremony with Ku Klux Klan members and descendants of White League members when the obelisk was restored. Protesters showed up and scuffles ensued. Police put an 82-year-old civil rights activist and state representative, Avery Alexander, in a chokehold and took him away. No KKK members were arrested.

Living history

In recent years, the four monuments have become magnets for social justice-oriented vandalism and focal points for anti-racist protests like Black Lives Matter. The activist group Take ‘Em Down Nola has waged the main campaign against the city’s Confederate imagery. In 2015, the group staged a Confederate flag burning at the feet of the Robert E. Lee statue and projected photographs of slaves mutilated by beatings on the statue’s pillar.

The organizations fighting for the preservation of these monuments argue that history, good or bad, should not be revised or erased. Instead, monument supporters have taken a “both sides” approach. The Monumental Task Force, one of the groups that sued over the planned removal, submitted a plan to the city to create new monuments for unspecified African American figures rather than tear down the Confederates.

But the fight to “take em down” is rooted in the conviction that white supremacy is not confined to the historical records.

Since the election of Donald Trump, Take ‘Em Down Nola has directly linked its crusade against historic white supremacists with organizing against the Trump administration. On Inauguration Day, the group led thousands in a protest march to City Hall.

Police guard the statue of Andrew Jackson from protesters seeking to take it down. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Police guard the statue of Andrew Jackson from protesters seeking to take it down. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Despite the legal victory, activists are not likely to let up on the city anytime soon. Beyond the four Civil War-era monuments, Take ‘Em Down Nola has also targeted Trump’s self-professed role model: former president Andrew Jackson, a slave trader responsible for the Trail of Tears genocide of Native Americans. In September, hundreds of protesters marched from Congo Square, a historic gathering place for slaves that became the birthplace of jazz, to Andrew Jackson’s statue in Jackson Square, a tourist attraction in the heart of the French Quarter.

Duke and his supporters were waiting for them at the statue. “All I am is a person standing up for my people,” Duke said.

The city has rejected multiple requests to take down Jackson’s statue.

UPDATE: New Orleans began removing the first of the four Confederate monuments on April 24.

Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.