New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.


Difference Between History and Hate on Civil War Symbols

515J7ZrZkWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Little Rock     President Obama, delivering the eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, slain in his own church in Charleston, South Carolina along with eight members of an evening prayer group, drew the line importantly between history and hate, saying:

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”

The tragedy continues to roil politics in many southern states and cities on the question of what to do with Civil War symbols and continuing celebrations. The Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu for example has now called for the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in that city’s central business district. Many others in the South are taking similar stands.

In Arkansas on Wade’s World on KABF  talked to W. Stuart Towns, a retired professor of speech and rhetoric in Florida and Missouri, who has written extensively about Civil War memorabilia in the South and in that state. We wanted to closely examine the distinction between recognizing and learning from history as opposed to celebrating and elevating symbols of hate and division.

The conversation in Arkansas on these issues after Charleston has been muted and restrained, which Towns and I found somewhat surprising. From his research for his recent book, Arkansas Civil War Heritage: A Legacy of Honor, Towns pointed out that in many ways Arkansas was generally subdued about its Civil War history though there were seven hundred Civil War engagements ranking the state fourth in the number of armed conflicts among southern states during the war. He noted that there are fifty different memorials around the state to the Civil War currently. Many of them are more along the lines of historical markers noting for example where General Grant built a canal around Lake Village in the southern part of the state as part of the blockade of Vicksburg or the commemorative explanations in the northwestern part of the state to the battle of Pea Ridge. Seemingly we can agree that simply recognizing history is not the flashpoint for hate.

On the other hand there is no getting around the prominence of the central star in the Arkansas state flag that was explicitly added for the Confederacy and still flies everywhere. Towns also pointed out there were two memorials in various locations at the State Capitol in Little Rock, one to Confederate veterans and the other, somewhat bizarrely, to Confederate women left behind during the war, almost a caricature of the worst of Southern mythology. Undoubtedly, these were the results of determined lobbying, but nonetheless, undeniably inappropriate in their placement. Towns retired to Forrest City, named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, probably best known from his record as a Confederate General and as a founder and leader of the Klu Klux Klan after the war. We discussed what to make of that problem. Towns claimed the name came from Forrest’s role in building a railroad in the area that was central in moving the crops out of largely agricultural eastern Arkansas. Nonetheless the shoe of history no doubt pinches since the city’s demographics establish that 61% of the city is African-American and only 35% are white.

President Obama in his eulogy noted,

“For too long,” Mr. Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions….”

We can only hope so, while praying that the answers will come soon and will be the right ones.