“We Always Knew It Was Possible”: The Long Fight Against Symbols of White Supremacy in New Orleans

Mary Niall Mitchell. City. Volume 24, Issue 3-4. 2020.

In a photo printed in the New Republic in May of 2017, a young black person at a march in New Orleans held up a large photograph. The march was staged by the social justice group Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which demands the removal of all white supremacist monuments in the city. The picture was of the late Rev. Alexander in a chokehold at the hands of police in 1993. A local religious leader and state representative, Rev. Alexander had been protesting a gathering of white supremacists when he was manhandled by law enforcement. The supremacist group was fighting the city-ordered removal of an obelisk erected on Canal Street in 1891 to honour the so-called ‘Battle of Liberty Place.’ The obelisk commemorated a Reconstruction-era massacre in the name of white supremacy when the terrorist arm of the Democratic party, known as the White League, launched a lethal attack on the Republican-led city government after the Civil War. An inscription added to the original monument in 1932 spelled out its meaning: the election that ended Reconstruction ‘recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.’ Alexander and others had arrived to peacefully protest the Confederate flag-waving assembly and were met with police violence. The obelisk was removed to a less prominent location but remained on a public street in New Orleans until 2017 (Boulard 1993; Chadwick n.d.). When Take ‘Em Down Nola provided marchers with photographs of Alexander, they were paying homage to an elder and predecessor. But the photograph spotlighted three things: the persistence of monuments to white supremacy in New Orleans, the silencing of African American voices in the struggle against such symbols, and the long-standing practice in New Orleans of countering those silences with activism (Trouillot 1995).

Social justice groups such as Take ‘Em Down NOLA are part of a long local tradition of fighting systems of racial oppression. New Orleans activists, in fact, have been often in the vanguard of social movements that paved the way for other parts of the nation—from the 1811 slave revolt (the largest in American history) to Homer Plessy’s challenge to segregation on railcars, to the Civil Rights-era activism that brought Ruby Bridges to the steps of Frantz Elementary School in 1960. The city has also been the site of a protracted fight over monuments: in the 1970s the Youth Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought for the permanent removal of the Liberty Place monument as did justice advocates like Rev. Alexander in the 1990s (Boulard 1993; Chadwick n.d.).

In 2017, New Orleans was once again in the vanguard of cities fighting both the theory and practice of white supremacy as it was manifest in monuments to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, and the ‘Battle of Liberty Place’ obelisk. South Carolina had removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse and Memphis had made plans to relocate a Confederate monument there, but no other city had taken down, in swift succession, four prominent monuments to slaveholders, Confederates, and post-Civil War white supremacist violence. But the story most people read or watched in the media did not acknowledge the long history of protest that led to the events of 2017.

By opening with the image of the marcher holding up Alexander’s image, this essay aims to ‘flip the script’ on Confederate monument removal in New Orleans. It asks that we consider the removal of some of the city’s most prominent symbols of white supremacy not from the perspective of politicians and neo-Confederates, but rather, from the standpoint of grassroots advocates for racial equality who are part of a long historical tradition of advocacy. It is this perspective that was often absent in press coverage of the events in New Orleans, coverage that gave more space to the city’s mayor and the social media optics of white supremacist opposition to removal. In fact, the take down of the monuments to Robert E. Lee and others was the manifestation of persistent ‘freedom dreams’ on the part of generations of social justice advocates. To see these visions manifest we must ask what most news coverage on New Orleans monument removal did not: that is, not ‘what they are fighting against but what are they fighting for?’ (Kelley 2003).

The work of urban fallism in New Orleans is both symbolic and political. In arguing for the ‘fall’ of white supremacist monuments, activists have confronted not only neo-Confederates but also, more significantly, the ‘post-racial neoliberalism’ of city officials. These officials offer removal as a means of rejecting an ugly racial past while ignoring deeply rooted inequalities and contemporary state violence to which those symbols were closely tied in the eyes of many in the black community (Alderman and Inwood 2015).

To understand the phenomenon of urban fallism in New Orleans is to recognise that the ‘takedown’ process is part of a long, on-going grassroot struggle to banish white supremacist monuments from the urban landscape. The desire to remove white supremacist monuments was, and is, about dislodging the city’s tangible and symbolic support for defenders of slavery, racism, segregation, and its continued legacies while making the public space of the city itself more inclusive. This argument is in line with the urban studies theory of the ‘right to the city’ which includes what scholar David Harvey describes as ‘a right to make the city different’, to re-make it into a more inclusive and democratic space (Harvey 2003; Lefebvre [1967] 1996). In addition to the forward-looking takedown movement in New Orleans, the design team Paper Monuments solicited community ideas, as well as the work of creative artists and historians, to reflect on what monuments should be on the city’s landscape today by telling stories that counter ‘the interwoven political and economic project of white supremacy and racial capitalism that must be toppled from its pedestal’ (Mobley and Lee 2019). The work of monument removal and re-imagining in New Orleans—the ‘right to the city’—is inherently about the future rather than the past. Without the likeness of Lee, Beauregard, and Davis working as landmarks, young people of colour are better able to envision a democratic city that works for all of its citizens. Without a forward-looking vision—the sort expressed in non-violent protests by justice advocates for generations—Robert E. Lee would still be perched on a column high over the city rather than in an undisclosed city warehouse. When a reporter from the New York Times asked Take ‘Em Down NOLA and New Orleans People’s Assembly co-founder Angela Kinlaw if she was surprised to see Lee and the others go, her response reflected the group’s forward vision: ‘we always knew it was possible’ (Blinder 2017).

Critiquing the Lost Cause

New Orleans activists follow in the footsteps of the earliest critics of the Lost Cause as a tool of black oppression. By the late 19th century, proponents of the Lost Cause had largely succeeded in framing the Civil War as a conflict between whites in the North and South over ‘states’ rights’ (Blight 2002). Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved man who had become the face of the antislavery movement before the war, used his public appearances to remind Americans of the foul root of the conflict. He was intent on reminding the next generation that the war had been fought over slavery. ‘I shall never forget’, Douglass said on Decoration Day in 1894, ‘the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it’ (Blight 1989; Trouillot 1995).

By the early 20th century, historian W. E. B. DuBois, too, was a critic of the romanticised retelling of the Civil War by white people, particularly the glorification of Robert E. Lee. In 1928, as monuments were appearing across the South, DuBois recognised the on-going dangers of the cult of Lee and its direct connection to campaigns to terrorise and disenfranchise African Americans and keep their communities in poverty. A new generation, he warned, would be educated to believe that the ‘Lost Cause’ was verifiable history, rather than a mythic balm for the white South. Lee led the Confederate military during the American Civil War in its failed effort to secede from the Union and preserve the rights of slaveholders. Despite defeat, Lee emerged from the war a tragic hero among whites, North and South. He became a symbol of the ‘Lost Cause’—a mythology that depicted the Confederacy as a noble endeavour and celebrated the ‘Old South’ before the war as an idyllic place where enslaved people, unfit for citizenship, lived in harmony with their enslavers. This mythology served as the public relations strategy that drew a screen in front of the bloody return to ‘home rule’ in the South at the end of post-war Reconstruction.

Significantly, Dubois made the connection between these false narratives of the Civil War and the injustices faced by African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s:

What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. … Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization. (DuBois 1928)

By the 1960s, nearly every state in the nation had acquired a monument or memorial to the Confederacy, and a multitude of local historical societies and archives dedicated to preserving the history of the Confederacy arose (Brundage 2008). The strength of that campaign—and its direct relationship to the denial of rights to African Americans—is undeniable. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently charted two peak eras for the installation of Confederate monuments in public spaces: the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. The moments of greatest activity in terms of putting up Confederate monuments were also the moments when the demands for the civil rights among African Americans were at their most vocal in the South. It is no coincidence, then, that the recent fight over the future of these monuments coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has grown since the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 and in response to repeated deaths of black Americans at the hands of police since. In this light, the monuments are not statues but rather, stone barricades against social and political equality for black people in the United States (Southern Poverty Law Center 2016).

Narratives of Removal

The most recent event that brought the monuments back into the national press was the Charleston massacre in 2015. A white supremacist neo-Confederate murdered 13 people at the historic Emmanuel Baptist Church, all African Americans, who had welcomed him into their prayer circle. A photograph of the perpetrator from social media, holding the Confederate flag, appeared in nearly every news report about the massacre (Ghansah 2017; Kytle and Roberts 2018; Robles 2015). Soon after Charleston came calls for the removal of Confederate emblems from the public landscape. In a dramatic takedown, a woman named Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and removed its Confederate flag. But it was New Orleans, where organisers had been pressing for removal of such symbols for years, that took the next steps (Joiner 2017).

On 19 May 2017 crowds gathered to watch the careful dislodging of a sixteen-foot statue of Confederate General Robert. E. Lee from atop its 70-foot column and base at the centre of Lee Circle in downtown New Orleans, where it had stood for 133 years. For those who had been advocating removal of New Orleans’s monuments to proslavery Confederates, Lee’s fall was long overdue and cause for celebration. Although the city has yet to rename the traffic roundabout where the Lee statute once stood, among activists and monument protesters it acquired a new name when it was clear the statue would come down: ‘Free Circle.’ (As of this writing, discussions for the future of the Circle and its name are on-going, see Litten 2019). Lee was the last of four prominent monuments removed in 2017: in addition to Lee, also removed were statues of Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as well as the obelisk erected to honour the so-called ‘Battle of Liberty Place.’ After a series of public hearings, City Council approval, and the defeat of several court challenges, the legal determination that the monuments were ‘public nuisances’ allowed for their removal (Wendland 2017).

At the Lee takedown, the two most prominent justice organisations working on removal, Take ‘Em Down NOLA and the New Orleans People’s Assembly (a grassroots organisation dedicated to the concerns of working people in the city) rallied their members and community supporters. They set up tailgate parties and barbeque pits and danced to brass bands and boom boxes.

But there were plenty of Lee monument supporters in the crowd, too (many of them reportedly from outside of the city) holding Confederate flags and wearing the symbol on their hats and t-shirts (Mitchell 2017). They had been ‘defending’ Lee Circle for weeks, when it became clear that the statue’s removal was imminent (Evans 2017). Because Lee’s statue was the last of the four large monuments to Confederates removed from public spaces in the city, after two years of hearings and court filings and community forums about their fate, its fall was the final send-off for four of the city’s most prominent symbols of white supremacy. When Lee’s statue finally reached the ground, workers loaded it into the bed of a truck and hauled it away to cheers from the crowd (nola.com 2017).

What most people outside of New Orleans remember about the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments, however, is not the open-air brass band party. Rather, it’s the speech by the city’s mayor, Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Landrieu, given on the same day. It was delivered in the city’s historic Gallier Hall, in a space that could not have been more different from the street party at Lee Circle. Landrieu declared:

the Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered. (Sayre 2017)

He pointed to other aspects of New Orleans history that had been silenced for too long by the Lost Cause narrative and the statues that celebrated it. He noted, for instance, that New Orleans had been the largest slave market in the South before the Civil War and was a site, like many other places in the former Confederacy, of lynchings and other racial violence during and well after Reconstruction. Monuments and statues to the defenders of slavery and white supremacy, Landrieu suggested, did not and should not have a place in the diverse city he governed in the 21st century. ‘As a community’, Landrieu declared, ‘we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history’ (Sayre 2017).

Landrieu’s framing kept racism and inequality in the past, not the present. Such reasoning is in line with a neo-liberal business and political class more concerned with perceptions of the city than in addressing on-going struggles against racial injustice, structural inequality, and police violence against people of colour (McFarland, Bowden, and Bosman 2019). The Gallier Hall speech in 2017 was praised in the national press, went ‘viral’ on social media, and brought Landrieu numerous speaking engagements in other cities, not to mention a book contract.

To the nation and world, the explanation for New Orleans’s monument removal did not lie in the work of black community activists who for many decades led protests, petitioned, and advocated for removal, but rather, with the white mayor whose eyes had suddenly been opened (Sekora 1987). When the mayor’s office called the Gallier Hall press conference in 2017 announcing the Lee removal, Take ‘Em Down NOLA was not invited to the event. Quess? Moore, a co-founder of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, told The Nation that while he believes in activists remaining outside the channels of government, to have no recognition of their role in the removal of the monuments at the Gallier Hall event was galling. ‘Basically it was typical white-savior cooptation of the narrative’, Moore explained. Instead, Take ‘Em Down NOLA staged their own celebration before Landrieu’s press conference and drew over 1000 people (A Scribe Called Quess 2018; Meyerson 2017; Stein 2017).

Urban fallism in New Orleans—as opposed to the speechifying and logistics around monument removal—was (and remains) a complicated process aimed at ridding the cityscape of white supremacist monuments, a process for which the work of local social justice activists has been central. For activists, monument removal and the political movement for social justice are intertwined. As geographers have recently noted about a subsequent struggle in Tampa, Florida, the central debate among those who favoured the fall of white supremacist monuments was whether ‘removal heralds a closing or opening of struggles for racial justice.’ (McFarland, Bowden, and Bosman 2019) Activist groups not only raised public awareness about the historical significance of the monuments and gathered the necessary support for the mayor’s plan, but they also refused to quarantine the statues to Lee, Davis, Beauregard, and the White League in the past.

Landrieu’s notion of moving ‘past a painful part of our history’ rang hollow to community members who insisted that the monuments’ presence on the streets of New Orleans was deeply implicated in the politics of the present. In a Facebook post in May 2017, for instance, the group declared: ‘We are committed to the take down of ALL symbols to white supremacy, as a necessary part of the struggle toward racial and economic justice.’ They pointed to ‘63% of $615 million’ in the city budget devoted to ‘cops, jails, and reactive measures that PROVE that symbols to white supremacy show up in systems. It’s not one or the other, it’s both & all. Symbols & systems to white supremacy must go!’ (Take ‘Em Down NOLA, Facebook post, May 13, 2017).

While historians and journalists may view the struggles over monuments as a struggle over public memory, justice advocates see theirs as a fight for political and social equality. The fallism that occurred on the streets of New Orleans in 2017, albeit made legal via formal channels, was made possible because of the thinkers and the community activists who long preceded Landrieu in their call for removing the city’s prominent white supremacist symbols.

The Movement in New Orleans

In the 21st century, much like the 19th and the 20th, New Orleans is a city of enormous economic and racial disparity, but this political environment has also fostered a long history of resistance. As historian George Lipsitz has observed, ‘the stark imbalances of power in New Orleans have also provoked the creation of a relentless and continuing series of egalitarian and antiracist artistic, social, and political mobilizations that continue to this day … ’ (Lipsitz 2011, 214). The events of 2015 may have heated up the debate over the monuments, but in New Orleans mobilisations against such symbols of white supremacy had been alive for decades.

One of the most visible veteran activists, Malcolm Suber, told The New Republic that the removal of the monuments ‘was a continuation of struggles in the black community for decades to rid the city of these white supremacy monuments.’ (Stein 2017) Suber has been lobbying against monuments and memorials to enslavers since the 1990s. He spearheaded a successful campaign to change the names of twenty public schools in New Orleans that honoured well-documented white supremacists, including enslavers. ‘To maintain these names is another badge of inferiority slapped on your children’, Malcolm Suber told the School Board in 1990 (Drielinger 2017; Meyerson 2017). After 2015, monument opponents made similar arguments against the statues and other honorifics to Confederates. As People’s Assembly co-founder Angela Kinlaw told the New Republic,

Symbols are used to bond people around cultural values, ideas, political ideologies, and those ideas show up in systems that are protected by the state. When we look at our environment and we see that all of the major street names, all of the most revered monuments, all the parks that these kids and families are playing in […] All of this stuff is messaging, all of this stuff is psychological, all of this stuff has an impact. (Smith 2017)

Quess? Moore explained that the damage such symbols could do became clear to him when he attended a lecture by Malcolm Suber and another historian, Leon A. Waters. Together Suber and Waters collaborate on Hidden Histories, a tour company that for years has told the neglected history of events such as the 1811 Slave Rebellion and civil rights struggles in the city. As Moore told The New Republic, Suber and Waters pointed to the monuments to underscore their arguments about black history and systemic oppression. According to Moore, they told him: ‘Okay, this shows you what the state thinks about you; this shows you what the state thinks about the system that oppressed your ancestors and how they still feel about it to this day’ (Smith 2017).

While the critical public history of Suber and Waters has shaped social justice advocates such as Moore, residents who remained in support of the monuments expressed a very different view of history. The contrast between those for and against removal came to the surface in the testimony citizens gave before the city council in 2015. The divide was clear between those who did not experience the negative psychological effects of these artefacts and those who did. A white man in military fatigues speaking in support of the monuments, for instance, said: ‘We all know that slavery is wrong. Our history is sometimes painful but it makes us who we are in order to build a better future.’ Compare his testimony to the words of an African American woman for whom this ‘painful’ past was insufferable. For her, the Lee monument ‘represents the savagery committed against my people for generations. The Lost Cause apparently is not completely lost […] people are actually wanting to continue to celebrate this hatred. It’s amazing, in 2015, I’m fighting Robert E. Lee!’ (nola.com 2015).

Although the statue of Lee is now in an undisclosed location, there are controversial public statues still standing at which Take ‘Em Down NOLA has staged protests. In 2016, the group tried to tear down the iconic statue of Andrew Jackson, rearing on a horse, from its prominent pedestal in Jackson Square. Jackson, a slaveholder, lead of the Battle of New Orleans against British forces in 1815 and became the president responsible for the Native American ‘Trail of Tears.’ The Jackson statue’s place in the history and tourist iconography of the city made it an especially difficult monument to challenge. And given the statue’s size, a successful teardown would have been difficult without heavy equipment, which the marchers did not have. To add to the drama on the day of the teardown effort, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, white supremacist, and Louisiana native David Duke made an appearance in a show of support for Andrew Jackson (Reckdahl 2016). In another protest, Take ‘Em Down NOLA dressed a statue of Louisiana Supreme Court Judge E. D. White in a Ku Klux Klan hood and posted a sign in front detailing Judge White’s membership in the Crescent City White League. According to Quess? Moore, this demonstration underscored White’s place in the history of white supremacist laws as well as the racism still inherent in the American justice system: ‘His statue stands in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court as a perfect symbol for the injustice that non-white folks continue to receive in New Orleans’ (A Scribe Called Quess 2018). Mobilizations such as these, while they may not yet have resulted in removal, serve to expose the presence of statues dedicated to enslavers and white supremacists and raise public awareness about both the histories they mark and the histories they conceal (Trouillot 1995).

Conclusion

Public reckoning with America’s racial past at the national level is still centred on the Civil War and its aftermath. It remains what historian David Blight has called the ‘pivot point of American history.’ After a violent Neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Blight wrote in The Guardian on 20 August 2017: ‘The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire (Blight 2017)’.

As true as Blight’s words feel at the level of the national news cycle, they do not reflect the realities of veteran activists like Suber (whose battle against commemorations of slaveholders now spans nearly thirty years) as well as younger activists like Quess? Moore and Angela Kinlaw. For them, statues to the Confederacy have been a constant reminder in New Orleans of on-going structural and psychological oppression. But like their predecessors, such as Rev. Alexander and Suber, their activism destabilised some of the most visible symbols of white supremacy and advanced the struggle for social justice in New Orleans.

Since the writing of this essay, the United States, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, has been rocked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed by police in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. Handcuffed on the ground, police ignored Floyd’s pleas and those of witnesses while a white officer held a knee to Floyd’s neck for 8 min and 46 s. Weeks-long protests erupted throughout the United States and the world in response. A consistent refrain from protesters and their political allies is that Floyd’s death is the pivot point for 400 years of systemic oppression of black people in the United States.

Enacting the interpretation of Confederate monuments as emblems of systemic, structural racism—the argument made by both Take ‘em Down Nola and Paper Monuments leaders in New Orleans—suddenly city governments across the country are scrambling to remove statues to white supremacy and rename buildings and streets in their communities, while Black Lives Matter activists are taking down some of these symbols on their own. In New Orleans, the City Council is creating a formal process to replace landmarks honouring white supremacists with those celebrating community members who have worked for equity and justice (Adelson 2020). The final report for the Paper Monuments project, issued in 2019, echoed the decades of work by Suber and others even as it looked forward from the present moment: the ‘modern parallels of historical oppression, marginalization, and violence’ must be met with counter-narratives. ‘In the face of intentional erasure,’ the report concludes, ‘to remember is a radical act’ (Mobley and Lee 2019).