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New Orleans mayor: Why I’m taking down my city’s Confederate monuments

We must remember this history, and learn from it, but we shouldn’t celebrate it.

Protesters calling for the removal and the preservation of Confederate-era monuments face off in dueling demonstrations on May 7 in New Orleans. (Max Becherer/Advocate via Associated Press)

Last month, New Orleans began the long-overdue process of removing four statues honoring the lost, and immoral, Confederate cause. This week, we continue the job.

Getting here wasn’t easy. It took a two-year review process, a City Council vote and victories over multiple legal challenges. The original contractor we’d hired to remove the monuments backed out after receiving death threats and having one of his cars set ablaze. Nearly every heavy-crane company in southern Louisiana has received threats from opponents. Some have likened these monuments to other monuments around the world from bygone eras, and have argued that civic resources would be better spent trying to educate the public about the history they embody. Respectfully, that’s not the point. As mayor, I must consider their impact on our entire city. It’s my job to chart the course ahead, not simply to venerate the past.

More than almost any other city in the world, New Orleans is truly a city of many nations. Between the native Choctaw, Houma Nation and Chitimacha tribes, the colonial explorers de Soto and de La Salle, the Acadians, the Haitians, the Senegambians and other African nations, the imperial powers of France and Spain, and ultimately the United States, our city is a cross-section of humanity in all its colors and cultures. In recent decades, our Vietnamese and Latino communities have flourished. We are a melting pot, a gumbo. That is our strength.

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But New Orleans was also America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of misery and torture. Our history is forever intertwined with that of our great nation — including its most terrible sins. We must always remember our history and learn from it. But that doesn’t mean we must valorize the ugliest chapters, as we do when we put the Confederacy on a pedestal — literally — in our most prominent public places.

The record is clear: New Orleans’s Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were erected with the goal of rewriting history to glorify the Confederacy and perpetuate the idea of white supremacy. These monuments stand not as mournful markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in reverence of it. They are an inaccurate recitation of our past, an affront to our present and a poor prescription for our future.

The right course, then, is to excise these symbols of injustice. The Battle of Liberty Place monument was not built to commemorate the fallen law enforcement officers of the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia. It was meant to honor members of the Crescent City White League, the people who killed them. That kind of “honor” has no place in an American city. So, last month, we took the monument down.

This week, we began the removal of a statue honoring Davis, and soon thereafter Lee and Beauregard. It won’t erase history. But we can begin a new chapter of New Orleans’s history by placing these monuments, and the legacy of oppression they represent, in museums and other spaces where they can be viewed in an appropriate educational setting as examples of our capacity to change.

After we’re done moving these monuments, we’ll face an even greater task: coming together to decide who we are as a city — and as a nation. Over the past few years, before the monument removal effort, we began Welcome Table New Orleans, which facilitates tough conversations about race and brings various communities together on projects in their neighborhoods. As part of our work, residents have discussed and designed reconciliation projects, such as a mural and oral history project on what was once part of a plantation, as monuments to the future, not the past.

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History, unfortunately, has seen great nations become lost, isolated and ultimately extinct by refusing to confront the sins of the past and evolve to meet the demands of a changing world. If we don’t want to be forever held back by our crushing history of institutional racism, it’s time to relegate these monuments to their proper place.

Last year, when President Barack Obama opened the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, he spoke of the need to contextualize our history through one of the museum’s most telling artifacts: a slave auction block with a marker noting that Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay had once spoken from atop it. “For a long time the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history, with a plaque,” Obama said, “were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men” — not the families “sold and bid like cattle” on that same spot.

Just like the decision to publicly recognize the tragic significance of that stone, removing New Orleans’s Confederate monuments from places of prominence is an acknowledgment that it is time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.