The clock has been ticking for New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. Now, the final bell may have tolled.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plans to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis had benefited from a temporary reprieve while an appeal was argued in the U.S. Fifth Circuit. Now, that appeal has been denied, eliminating the last legal hurdle for removal.
Another monument on the chopping block commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place was governed by a separate order in the Louisiana Eastern District; however, the judge in that case subsequently ruled that his order does not preclude the city’s plans.
To be frank, there were few legal arguments offered by the appellants fighting Mayor Landrieu’s plan that held any legal water. I had initially reached the opposite conclusion, but ultimately it became clear that, for better or worse, historic monuments have virtually no protection under state or federal law unless previously declared as National Historic Landmarks. Beyond that, local governments have carte blanche.
There is still some slim chance that the monuments will be saved. The state could still step in by passing a so-called “heritage act,” legislation that places all monuments over a certain age under state protection. However, it is unlikely that anything will hit the governor’s desk in time (and even if it did, it seems unlikely that Gov. Edwards would sign it given his past statements).
For its part, the city is trying to move fast. Transparency is out the window; an anonymous donor will supposedly foot the bill for the removal, and the city has elected to hold off on revealing the names of those submitting bids until after the process is complete.
The bid went out last Tuesday, and the city plans to award a contract at the beginning of April. As predicted, the Request for Proposals indicates that Mayor Landrieu would like to have his cake and eat it too — with the Lee and Davis Monuments, for example, he plans to keep the pedestals intact and simply remove the statutes.
Presumably, this means that Landrieu wants to repurpose Lee and Davis’ pedestals, paid for by Civil War veterans and their families, for some other undefined purpose. That’s crass and, of course, destroys the physical and historic integrity of both monuments.
Also, it is unclear whether it is even possible to remove Lee’s statue, which stands a whopping 16-and-a-half feet tall, without irreparably damaging it. When the city solicited bids before the process was halted by litigation, contractors opined that they were being given insufficient information on how the statute is actually attached, which may make it impossible to remove intact.
Moreover, forcing the process along at an accelerated rate, as Landrieu seems hell-bent on doing, only increases the possibility that the removal (or partial-removal, as the case may be), will not be executed properly.
For all Landrieu’s talk of preservation, he doesn’t care one whit about keeping the monuments whole and undamaged. Two of the monuments will be treated as interchangeable platforms, and at least with Lee, the statute itself may be horribly marred.
The reason for Landrieu’s actions aren’t perfectly clear, but it has been suggested that he doesn’t see a career in Louisiana politics on the horizon and is now jockeying for a plum position with some a left-wing nonprofit, such that pursuing a radical and broadly unpopular position on Confederate monuments actually boosts his chances. It may also be that he’s sincere, i.e., so tone-deaf that he actually believes his divisive actions have promoted racial harmony.
I’m not sure which possibility is the most disturbing – corruption or incompetence.
Indeed, if there’s been any positive influence from Landrieu’s scheme, it has been that other states have begun to pass heritage acts as a bulwark against similar mischief. Tennessee and North Carolina have already passed heritage laws, and just this past Thursday, the Alabama Senate passed Alabama Memorial Preservation Act following spirited debate. The efforts to remove monuments in New Orleans have been cited as a prime motivator for this legislation.
As this saga appears to reach a close, perhaps that will be the only silver lining. Our experience will not drive other cities to remove Confederate monuments. Rather, we will serve as a cautionary tale, encouraging other states to pass legislation mandating that history be preserved.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.