So, You Want to Remove Your Town's Confederate Monuments
Lessons learned from New Orleans's long but ultimately successful effort to unseat its rebel statues.
New Orleans's G.T. Beauregard Monument is removed from its pedestal in May. Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images
At the risk of sounding pretentious: New Orleans began removing our Confederates monuments months before it became fashionable. Following South Carolina's lead after the 2015 Dylan Roof shootings, Mayor Mitch Landrieu—whose policies have otherwise done more to burden local African Americans than to help them—boosted his stock by leading the charge against General Robert E. Lee. Today, the Confederate leader's bronze likeness no longer looms high above Lee Circle, his eyes no longer fixed on his enemies to the north.
But it wasn't easy to reach that point, as anyone who lived here during the months-long debate can attest. Much can be learned from New Orleans's painful, protracted battle to boot all its remaining Confederates. If your city plans to confront this problem soon—which it should—then let me offer some advice:
Don't list the contractor's name in the paper
The Landrieu administration made the mistake of announcing the name of the first company hired to ax General Lee. Of course, extra-passionate "history buffs" set fire to the contractor's car (a Lamborghini no less). After that contractor quit out of fear, it took a long time to find a replacement. While that hunt dragged on, the pro-monument Monumental Task Committee began suing the city, further gumming up the process.
Do it fast
New Orleans did not have many examples to follow, and so came out the gate clumsy. Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh must have been watching our struggle, because she had four of her city's monuments to racists removed under cover of night less than 48 hours after the decision was made to get rid of them. Good ol' boys may now feel free to sue Baltimore's city government if they're that desperate to waste taxpayers' money, but either way the statues sure as hell aren't going back up.
Do it with private funds
City council members in my former hometown of Tampa infuriated my friends there recently by deciding to make residents raise their own money for monument removal. The city, which I moved away from after local government forced taxpayers to buy the NFL a new football stadium, demanded citizens raise $140,000 in 30 days or else the Confederate statues would remain, and quit your cryin', snowflakes.
This seems like an injustice. Why should they have to pay for that shit? But here's the thing: Using tax dollars for this gives certain pro-statue arguments a foothold. Complaining about how your taxes are spent is every American's right, even if you are racist. And in the country's current economic hellscape, where most cities teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, a case is easily made that tax dollars should instead go toward problems that are less symbolic. Tax dollars beg bureaucracy. Here in New Orleans, a private donor (suspected to be Whitney Plantation slavery museum owner John Cummings) quickly gave $1 million to our cause—which would have covered almost the entire cost if armed racists had not shown up from out of town to protest, and local activist kids not swooped in to taunt them, all of it necessitating overtime security totaling $700,000 in tax dollars.
In Tampa, thanks to donations including $1,000 from city mayor Bob Buckhorn, $5,000 from beloved NFL coach Tony Dungy, and another $50,000 from former Tampa Bay Storm owner Bob Gries, advocates raised their needed money in less than 24 hours.
Don't let them tell you you're whitewashing history
These statues were literally put up long after the Civil War specifically to whitewash history and paint the losers as winners. Not to mention that some of these statues are not even antiques yet, or as the Guardian dubbed them, "History about as old as the George W Bush presidency… culture stretching back to the heyday of Britney Spears." History has proven we can live without them.
Do not fear the dreaded slippery slope
Many white people in New Orleans now worry that this "rewriting of history" will simply never end. A friend here joked that liberals might eventually take down the Confederacy of Dunces statue on Canal Street. But many others seriously fear we're on a path to dismantling Louisiana's famous plantation homes, along with anything else remotely tied to slavery. However, in the same way that these critics are unable to see their own racism, they somehow also cannot tell the difference between a monument to a general who fought in a pro-slavery army and a beautiful mansion that slaves were forced to build.
Who knows what to do with these confused people, but hopefully New Orleans's city government ignores them as we move on to replace our famous Andrew Jackson statue with one honoring the greatest New Orleanian, Richard Simmons, before we then rechristen the new Soulja Slim Circle. Southern street names are fixin' to change as well, as they always have, almost always without protest.
Don't get distracted by subtleties
If denying freed slaves their 40 acres and a mule was America's biggest mistake after the Civil War, then letting the Confederacy continue its propaganda campaign after it lost might be a close second. The fight to preserve slavery was recast as a war fought by noble men who were just a little misguided. The victors of America's Civil War wanted so badly to get past shit and begin rebuilding the country that they let the South continue waving their flags and building their confused monuments. A false complexity was allowed to grow around the Confederate cause.
Compare America's rancid nostalgia for the Confederacy to the way Germany deals with its own shameful past: Just last week an American who gave the Nazi salute was first punched by a German and then cited by police.
Let's keep it simple: The statues should come down because they honor men who fought on the wrong side of history. And if anyone argues that the Nazi were a lot different than the Confederates, tell them, "That's true; slavery lasted almost 400 years longer than the Holocaust."
Don't believe that this is about learning
At a New Orleans's City Hall hearing last year to decide the fate of our statues, a member of the Monumental Task Force actually said into a microphone, "You can't just erase history... You can't just hide it in a museum."
In reality, our General Lee statue was 60 feet up in the air, not teaching anyone shit. No plaque to read, nothing. A museum, on the other hand, is a literal, official place of learning. Besides, if these statues were such great educational tools, then why do the people who love them not grasp the simple fact that all Confederate soldiers were traitors to the United States of America?
It should not come as any type of shock that decisions made long ago exclusively by white men would be reconsidered and revised once all Americans' opinions finally began to matter. If you can't stand the thought of Robert E. Lee in a museum rather than a place of dominance on public land, then white supremacy is what you aim to protect. If historical accuracy is truly your gripe, you should be appalled that these symbols ever went up to begin with.
Follow Michael Patrick Welch on Twitter.