IN THE space of just a few weeks, New Orleans has taken a major step toward de-glorifying a past that deserves very little glory. Acting on the vote of its city council, and with cover from state and federal courts that rebuffed specious challenges, the city took down monuments erected with the explicit goal of lionizing the Confederacy and a past in which slavery was a central and defining feature.
Despite huffing and puffing by relatively small bands of whites — some armed, some unrepentantly racist — claiming their “heritage” was being dishonored, Mayor Mitch Landrieu acted decisively. He removed statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, as well as a triumphal monument exalting a bloody white racist attack in the Reconstruction era that killed members of an integrated police force.
The city is warehousing the monuments while it searches for a new home for them — perhaps a museum or garden outside the public space. In the meantime, the South is left to grapple with what to do with hundreds, or perhaps thousands, more such statues and memorials, in varying sizes and settings, many of them erected as odes to the Confederacy’s “lost cause” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is no blanket rule that easily applies to the proper course to take with all such symbols, let alone countless schools, roads and other facilities named in honor of men who, in the name of maintaining an inhumane system, sought to destroy the United States. Some statues should be removed and relocated. Some might be given updated contexts, perhaps with historical plaques. Some, including those in private cemeteries, should probably be left alone.
In many cases, however, what is unacceptable is to do nothing. In New Orleans, the monuments that stood for decades (or, in the case of the Lee statue, 133 years) were offensive to broad swaths of the local citizenry — not just the 60 percent of the city’s population that is African American. One does not have to be black to grasp that whatever revisionism about the Civil War’s roots the South once clung to — “states’ rights” was a popular one — those who fought and extolled the Confederacy were champions of a system whose defeat meant liberty and the promise of justice for millions of once enslaved people.
Yes, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and other prominent early Americans were slave owners, but their lives and contributions to history were not defined by a struggle to the death to preserve slavery. And those who erected many of the statues of Confederate icons, in the decades after the Civil War, did so as an act of defiance — a promise that the South would “rise again” in the cause of white supremacy.
That impulse is deeply offensive to most Americans today, in a more enlightened age. In some ways, the Confederacy has passed into the realm of folklore — reenactments and toy soldiers — but its real history deserves serious attention and, in the case of physical monuments, a healthy dose of context. It’s no longer acceptable to pretend that no political meaning attaches to glorifying the “lost cause.”