And, the Civil War Monuments Come Down

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   Mi companera was happy for a number of reasons this morning.

She liked the fact that there was a positive comment about a Southerner on the front page of the New York Times. The reporter in dissecting the bad boy antics and ruthless operation of Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, had told a story his being summoned to a meeting at Apple where engineers had discovered that his company was breaking their rules of operation. In the meeting, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple confronted the Uber exec by saying, “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Cook said – now hear this – “in his calm, Southern tone.” You can see why she was excited. How often do any of us see “calm” and “Southern” in the same sentence. It just doesn’t happen.

But, that was the icing on her cake on this particular morning. She had awakened to beeps on her phone that she described to me later as Twitter being “on fire.” The first of the long promised and long delayed removal of four Civil War and Reconstruction monuments in the City of New Orleans had been accomplished under the cover of darkness, outfoxing opponents who were on a self-proclaimed vigil to protest and attempt to block the removal and had long delayed the efforts with legal maneuvers and anonymous threats to contractor bidders of violence and mayhem.

The first to go was, if anything, the least defensible, the so-called “Liberty” Monument or more formally the Battle of Liberty Place monument, that memorialized the efforts of white New Orleanians to oppose the post-Civil War Reconstruction government in the city and state. This was not the first trip the monument had taken. Under a previous mayor, Sidney Barthlemy, the second African-American mayor elected in the city, it had been moved in 1993 and placed almost in hiding behind a parking lot structure near Canal Street. The plaque was changed at the time. Where previously the language had expressly commemorated white supremacy, it was rewritten to commemorate the courage of the local police force in opposing the vigilante efforts by various parts of the racist, white community to turn back the clock. For a long time the monument had been the staging ground for various racist groups around Louisiana to rally, hoot and holler.

Hiding behind the true facts, local reporters interviewed a man who claimed to be a great grandson of one of the men listed on the Liberty Place monument. He claimed his relative had only recently arrived from Ireland, never owned slaves, and had not been part of the War Between the States. He claimed that his fore-bearer and his associates had only been fighting to maintain the role of state and city rights versus those of the federal government, responsible in this case for Reconstruction after the war that had temporarily empowered and elected some African-Americans to public office. He may have wanted to believe that, but of course it wasn’t true, and the original plaque, had he been willing to acknowledge it, would have made his remarks a lie, even as he spoke them.

This monument and the others that will now follow will go to much less visible hiding places elsewhere in the city, but these are concrete and marble embarrassments that have long divided this city and so many others in the South, allowing “calm” and Southern to be more comfortable reside together in many sentences, cities, and states around the South for everyone, not just for the few still trying to breathe something different in the hate that has scarred these communities for too long.