‘Battle of New Orleans’ as statues removed
For some, they are symbols of white supremacy. For others, they are simply expressions of history. The Confederate monuments of New Orleans are being taken down. Is this the right move?
The dead of night in New Orleans, Louisiana. Enter a team of workers. They wear masks to hide their identity. Police snipers stand on nearby rooftops.
The workers began demolishing an obelisk which was erected in 1891 to honour members of a group who fought in the Reconstruction-era Battle of Liberty Place against the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia. It was the first of four monuments to be taken down in the city.
This is just the latest result in the debate about Confederate symbols in a post-slavery USA. The decision was taken by Mitch Landrieu, the city’s mayor, in order to send “a clear and unequivocal message to the people of New Orleans and the nation: New Orleans celebrates our diversity, inclusion and tolerance. We are able to choose a better future.”
The other monuments to be taken down are statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard; and of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, the group of southern states where slavery was permitted.
Many inhabitants of this majority black city are rejoicing at the mayor’s decision. Malcolm Suber, an African-American activist, wants the monuments’ destruction to be a Berlin Wall moment, urging the city to issue sledgehammers and “let everybody take a whack”.
But for some white people in the city, the decision seems like a totalitarian attempt to erase history. A businessman, Frank B. Stewart Jr, published a letter in a local paper asking “should the pyramids in Egypt be destroyed since they were built entirely from slave labour? What about the Colosseum?”
The debate about Confederate symbols has hit the headlines in particular since Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine people at a black church in South Carolina in June 2015. South Carolina removed the Confederate Battle Flag, which had flown at its State House for more than 50 years.
This dispute has echoes all over the world. In Bristol, Colston Hall, a concert hall named after Edward Colston, one of Britain’s richest slave-traders, is to be renamed.
Facing up to the past
This is the right decision, say some. Imagine being an African-American, the descendant of slaves, and having to walk past these grotesque monuments every day. The states of the American South must find a way to redefine themselves in the 21st century. Taking down these landmarks is a good start.
Tearing up century-old monuments and carting them off in the dead of night is very far from “inclusion and tolerance”, reply others. There may be blemishes in the past of many renowned historical figures, from Nelson Mandela to Winston Churchill, but we still remember them. It is better to understand the past, not erase it.
- Do you agree with the decision to remove the four monuments in New Orleans?
- Should we be more wary of celebrating historical figures?
- Write a letter to the mayor of New Orleans explaining how you think he should respond to protests surrounding the removal of the statues.
- Research a statue or a monument near where you live, and write 500 words on its historical significance.
Some People Say...
“You did not have to be evil to own slaves.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- We know that, since 2015, the movement to pull down statues of major figures from the Confederate era has become a major talking point in the USA. We know that the mayor of New Orleans has ordered four monuments to be taken down. However, there is still widespread opposition to such decisions.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the decision to remove the monuments will help or set back race relations, in a part of America haunted by the memories of slavery.
- What do people believe?
- That there will be many more disputes like this. There are still five states with Confederate symbols on their state flags, and it is likely that they will come under renewed pressure to change them.
- The era of US history from 1865 to 1877 following the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). The term also refers to the the attempted transformation of the Southern United States in that period, as directed by Congress, with the reconstruction of state and society.
- Robert E. Lee
- General-in-chief of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Lee is considered one of the country’s greatest generals.
- Dylann Roof
- Several photos were found of Roof posing with emblems associated with white supremacy and with the Confederate battle flag. On January 10th this year, he was sentenced to death.
- Another such case was a dispute over a statue at Oriel College, Oxford University, of Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and politician who was prime minister of Cape Colony in Africa. Students campaigned to remove the statue, and the Oxford Union voted to support them. The college’s governing body decided to retain the statue but to seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there.