PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
A demonstrator carries a sign opposing House Bill 71 as a crane prepares to take the statue of Robert E. Lee from its pedestal May 19.
After nearly seven hours of debate and testimony, a Louisiana Senate committee effectively killed a pair of bills that would give voters and the state Legislature control over the fate of Confederate-era monuments in the state.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 4-2 May 31 to defer state Sen. Beth Mizell's Senate Bill 198
and state Rep. Thomas Carmody's House Bill 71
. They will not head to the full Senate for a vote and are effectively dead for this year's session.
The bills followed intense public debate and demonstrations over the fate of four Confederate-era monuments in New Orleans. Monuments to P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and the white supremacist insurrection at the Battle of Liberty Place were removed over several weeks beginning in April, more than a year after the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to take them down after several public debates and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's request for their removal.
Mizell's bill would require legislative approval before a municipality removes or relocates any monument, memorial or plaque that's been in place for more than 25 years. Carmody's bill
would prohibit renaming, moving or altering any parks, streets, bridges, statues or other monuments named "in memory of or named for any historical military figure, historical military event, military organization, or military unit," including those in the "War Between the States." Those changes would then have to go to a vote.
Following the House's passage
of Carmody's bill May 15 members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus walked out. In a statement following the vote, the Black Caucus said the House voted to "usurp local government authority and decision making power."
"It was done under the guise of celebrating war heroes, but exposed a deep-rooted belief in white supremacy and racial divisiveness," the statement said.
Members of the nine-person committee — which includes New Orleans Sens. Wesley Bishop, Karen Carter Peterson, Troy Carter and J.P. Morrell — objected to the state taking decision-making power away from local governments and subjecting them to costly elections.
"Why would we take away their authority and cause for costly elections and not respect as we do in other instances the votes" of locally elected bodies, Peterson asked. "What distinguishes this issue from others?"
Carmody — a Shreveport Republican — said his legislation partially was inspired by the "large reaction from people" who wanted more input and more opportunity for discussion on the Confederate monuments. "We’ve all seen how this played out — the declaring of nuisances on these ... items without a plan," he said. "The public don't see assurances ... what is the end game, what is the final plan?"
Peterson reminded Carmody that the decision in New Orleans rested not only with the New Orleans City Council but two public commissions that also supported the City Council's decision to remove the monuments.
"You don't think the City Council represents the people's will?" she said. "When you vote in the House … do you think we represent the people's will?"
"What we struggle with up here is that … either we are going to be a state that believes in referendums or not," Morrell said. "If we are going as a legislator to say that locally elected bodies are not competent to represent their consituents, then people argue that we are not competent ... Your bill as currently structured … does set a precedent."
Morrell said the so-called Liberty monument "should've been blown up with dynamite a long time ago."
"That should've never been up in the first place," he said. Carmody agreed. "We agree on something," Morrell said, adding that the statue of Lee honored "a general that didn't believe in monuments." (Morrell quoted Lee's letter, saying, "I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.")
Though the state is unlikely to reverse New Orleans' decision to remove the four monuments, most of the public testimony that followed revolved around Confederate imagery and its representation in the state. "The vestiges of slavery still exist," Peterson said. "The impact, the ramifications of slavery — it wasn't that long ago."
State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, and state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe were the only votes opposing the bills' deferral. State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and state Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, were not present. Peterson did not vote.