New Orleans has permission to take down three monuments to the Confederacy and one statue honoring a white supremacist revolt, after decades of debate over their presence, message and the reasons they were made — and nearly two years after city officials voted to have them removed.
Now the city hopes to move relatively quickly, following last week's rulings from federal court judges that sided with the city in a pair of lawsuits that had delayed the removal.
The city opened bids for removal of the statues the morning after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that arguments in a lawsuit — filed by monument supporters immediately after the New Orleans City Council voted to take down the statues in December 2015 — "wholly lack legal viability or support," and that "wise or unwise, the ultimate determination made here, by all accounts, followed a robust democratic process."
"Indeed, by failing to show a constitutionally or otherwise legally protected interest in the monuments," the March 6 ruling from the three-judge panel said, "they have also failed to show that any irreparable harm to the monuments — even assuming such evidence — would constitute harm to [the] appellants."
That ruling gave the city the green light to take down monuments to P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance to New Orleans City Park, Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway and Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle. Two days later, another federal judge ruled that the city can remove the Battle of Liberty Place monument.
The city is likely to award a contract for the monuments' removal in the coming weeks. It plans to pay for their removal with money from a private donation, with no plans to use public funds. From there, the city will store them in a city-owned warehouse "until further plans can be developed for a park or museum site where the monuments can be put in a fuller context," according to the city. The federal appeals court said it accepts the city's assurance that it will "hire only qualified and highly skilled crane operators and riggers to relocate the monuments from their current positions and, further, that the monuments are merely to be relocated, not destroyed."
The Monumental Task Committee — a group not affiliated with the city that sued New Orleans and federal agencies to stop the removals — said in a statement that the group is "disappointed" in the court's ruling. "The plan to dismantle historic monuments does not advance any cause," the group said. "Rather, it erases history and only puts more monuments in line to be dismantled."
One week after a white supremacist killed nine people in a historic African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke to a crowd celebrating the one-year anniversary of Welcome Table New Orleans, a forum on race and reconciliation. Landrieu said he imagined himself as an African-American man explaining to his daughter who Lee was, when he fought, and what he fought to preserve. "So here's what I think," Landrieu said. "I think today's the day we start having the discussion about what we're going to put [at Lee Circle] to celebrate our 300th anniversary."
After months of public debate, the City Council voted Dec. 17, 2016 to remove the monuments under the city's "nuisance" ordinance, under which the city can remove from public view anything that "honors, praises, or fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens" or "suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over any other, or gives honor or praise to any violent actions taken wrongfully against citizens of the city to promote ethnic, religious, or racial supremacy of any group over another."
Landrieu said the March 6 ruling "will allow us to begin to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future."
"Moving the location of these monuments — from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered — changes only their geography, not our history," he said in a statement. "Symbols matter and should reflect who we are as a people. These monuments do not now, nor have they ever reflected the history, the strength, the richness, the diversity or the soul of New Orleans."
The city has had significant public debate and clashes over the Liberty Place monument, which originally honored a revolt in 1874 by members of the Crescent City White League against Reconstruction efforts and the city's integrated police force. Landrieu said the statue — currently behind the Canal Place parking garage — is "the most offensive of the four we will be moving."
"This monument, erected by the White League to specifically revere white supremacy and commemorate an attack on law enforcement, has never represented New Orleans or American values," Landrieu said.
In 2015, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison said he believes "the existence of the Liberty Place monument to be particularly shameful."
"This monument is not simply a reminder of a troubled past," he said.
The obelisk was completed in 1891 and was later moved from the neutral ground on Canal Street to a warehouse, then behind a parking garage at The Shops at Canal Place. Debate has swirled for decades over the statue's presence and message. In 1932, members of the White League added an inscription that read, "United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state." In 1974, following public outcry, Mayor Moon Landrieu's administration added, "The sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans."
In the '90s, a marker simply added, "In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place, a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future."
Unlike the other monuments, the Liberty statue was protected by a federal consent decree that prevented the city from moving it. The city moved the statue into a warehouse in the 1980s during road repairs, but a lawsuit forced it to remain in public view. In 1992, it was installed behind Canal Place — a much less prominent spot than the Canal Street neutral ground.
On March 8, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled that the order and preservation laws don't prevent the city from moving it.
Take 'Em Down NOLA organized to push the city to remove not only the four monuments but all symbols of white supremacy in the city, with citywide demonstrations and events rallying people against the monuments and racism. It celebrated the courts' decisions, but said, "There is no better time than the present to educate the masses on the importance of toxic symbols of white supremacy and the ways that they reflect themselves in systems of oppression."
"We know that this is only the beginning of the undoing of the blemish of white supremacy on our city," the group said in a statement. "There are still street names, schools and monuments (like Andrew Jackson, which should have certainly been on the mayor's list too and will be our next target) in New Orleans — all named after white supremacists."