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Coalitions call for removal of Confederate-era statues

29th June 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell tries to listen to her constituents in District B, and one of the messages voters have for her is extremely clear: It’s time to take down the statue and monument to Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederacy that was defeated in the Civil War.

That’s why she plans to introduce a motion to the council this week that calls for slating of a public hearing on whether the Davis memorial should stay or go.

“There’s been a groundswell in the community about this,” Cantrell said last Thursday. “The statue is in my district, and I hear it from many residents — they call me, they send emails about it. And the groundswell seems to be city-wide.”

If and when she does file the motion for a hearing, it would come about a week after Mayor Mitch Landrieu publicly questioned whether it was time to remove statues and other monuments in the city to Confederate leaders — such as Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard — as well as the ancient Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group out of the pages of history.

The mayor’s comments themselves came during last week’s “Welcome Table New Orleans” event aimed at racial reconciliation across the deep South. Landrieu’s press conference focused on the statue of Gen. Lee in famous Lee Circle, but he also referenced the other Confederate statues, as well as apologized for the city’s notorious role in the slave trade.

“We would never want to deny history,” Landrieu told the gathering, according to The New Orleans Advocate. “Robert E. Lee was a very important historical figure, not only in the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, but nationally as well. But whether or not that’s the appropriate place to recognize him is open for discussion.”

Following the murder of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by an alleged white-supremacist teen, there have been cries across the South to remove from the public representations of the Confederate battle flag, which critics say continues to symbolize racial oppression, while supporters of the symbol maintain that it is simply part of history and heritage, which cannot and should not be just erased.

But in New Orleans, several activist groups have for some time been advocating for the removal of the statues of Davis, Lee and others, asserting they both represent white supremacy and a shameful history, and also have no place in today’s changing cultural and social landscape.

Last Friday, the grassroots group Remove Racist Images, headed by Rudy Mills, held a rally at Lee Circle in support of removing the statues and other Confederate images.

“The rally is to start a movement to remove all the racist images that surround our city,” Mills said.

Mills compared the Confederate memorials to representations of a swastika and other Nazi propaganda that wouldn’t be tolerated by the city’s Jewish community.

“If images like that were around the city, the Jewish community would be upset,” he said. “So there’s no reason the African-American community should put up with that racism here. You lost the (Civil) War. It was decided. And it’s time to take the images down.”

Mills said the rally started partially as an outgrowth of his radio show on WBOK, “The Gumbo Zapado Show,” which airs on Saturday mornings.

Other community entities are getting involved as well. Pat Bryant, a leader of the Stand with Dignity coalition, a group of local, grassroots organizations dedicated to racial justice and equality, said last week that while Stand as a whole hasn’t taken on the statue issue, several groups that are part of the Stand coalition have stared it down, and Bryant agreed with the sentiment.

“We support taking down these racist statues,” Bryant said. “They have no place in modern society. Maybe have them in a museum or have a park for them somewhere, but don’t have them scattered around the city.

“These racists (depicted by the statues) are held up because they perpetuate an ideology based on a time when African Americans were slaves, were human chattel,” he added. “That’s a period in our history that has been clearly defeated by war 150 years ago. So why are these reminders of this racist ideology still prominent in our cities? Why is it necessary to keep perpetuating white supremacy now, in 2015?”

Councilwoman Cantrell said she doesn’t outright and definitely support removing the statue of, primarily, Davis, but she wants, like the mayor, to initiate a serious discussion about where New Orleans stands as a community.

That process, she said, must include the gathering of opinions from all of the city’s residents to gauge where the public sits on this sensitive issue.

“These statues do need to be discussed, because they do represent our history,” Cantrell said, “and it’s in line with the groundswell of community concern.

“There needs to be a hearing so we can hear what all of our citizens value,” she added, “because at the end of the day, (administrative decisions are) about what the citizens think of our values and our tastes.

“You can’t erase history,” she said. “But you can evaluate where we have come as a city and where our values are today.”

This article originally published in the June 29, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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