Former New Orleans mayor and textbook narcissist Marc Morial has come out in favor of Mayor Landrieu’s plan to remove four Civil War memorials located throughout the city. The erstwhile mayor, now head of the Urban League, proceeded to immediately put his foot in his mouth.
“Those symbols represent division,” Morial explained. “I don’t think Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard really had ties to the city.”
Apparently Morial’s grasp of Civil War history, even as it directly concerns the city he led for two terms as mayor, is just as lacking as his humility. While Lee had no major ties to New Orleans in particular, Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans and was originally buried here.
P.G.T. Beauregard, on the other hand, was born and raised in New Orleans. He primarily spoke French, and only learned English as an adolescent. One of his nicknames in the military was “Little Creole.”
Beauregard retired to New Orleans after the war and had his citizenship fully restored. He subsequently turned down offers to lead the armies of Brazil, Romania and Egypt. Instead, he eventually became the commissioner of public works for the city. In 1894, Beauregard died and was buried in Metairie Cemetery.
But of course Morial is completely ignorant of all of this. He’s a gigantic advertisement for the rationale behind Landrieu’s push to scrub all monuments of Confederate leaders from the landscape: simplistic thinking and wholesale ignorance of history.
Both of these factors were on display when the council opened the floor for public comment on a motion to initiate a 60-day period of discussions and public meetings over the fate of the four monuments. It rapidly became clear that Landrieu had opened up quite the can of worms.
“In the French Quarter you have Andrew Jackson and E.D. White in front of the Supreme Court building – a member of the White League,” local activist Malcolm Suber told the council. Suber’s argument was that the city needs to go further in purging references to racists and slaveholders.
In a city with as long a history as New Orleans, this would entail razing most existing statues and memorials and renaming a huge share of streets. Nevertheless, that’s the destination where Landrieu’s logic leads.
Even the ubiquitous symbol of the city, the fleur-de-lis, came under fire. Just this Friday, WWL-TV published an article by Wynton Yates entitled “Historians say fleur-de-lis has troubled history.” The piece quoted slave historian Dr. Ibrahima Seck as describing how slaves accused of fleeing “would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder and with the fleur-de-lis[.]”
Yates mused that “some may wonder whether there are parallels to the Confederate flag.”
This entire state of affairs has clearly devolved into some sort of witch hunt. It was reasonable to remove public displays of the Confederate Battle flag because those were linked to opposition to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, we don’t typically remove statues and memorials even if the individuals commemorated are controversial. Rather, it is generally sufficient that they are important historical figures.
A good comparison here would be Columbus Circle in New York City, at the center of which is a monument to Christopher Columbus similar to Lee Circle’s monument to Robert E. Lee. Although Columbus was a crucial explorer who brought knowledge of the Americas to Europe, he also slaughtered and enslaved the native populations he encountered – not a nice fellow. Some even credit him as the founder of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
It’s understandable that many minority groups, especially American Indians, wouldn’t be particularly fond of Columbus. Still, that’s not really the point of the monument. Columbus’ voyages, for better or worse, fundamentally shaped America.
In the same way, the figures of the Civil War shaped the South. The war finally decided the issue of slavery and established the primacy of the federal government. Southern society was forever changed.
To the extent Landrieu and his supporters believe that Confederate monuments send a wrong, divisive message, educating people of the fuller history of the Civil War is crucial. There is also little preventing the city from simply customizing plaques to clarify that the monuments are merely historic commemorations of important Southern figures in the Civil War and in no way imply support for the Confederate cause.
Of course, that’s not enough to satisfy the inquisition. And when a former mayor of New Orleans denies that P.G.T. Beauregard “had ties to the city,” we can see plainly that ignorance is not just a part of the problem, it is the problem.
Ignorance is why these monuments aren’t placed in proper context. Ignorance is what draws people to become distracted by these types of non-substantive issues while our streets run red with the blood of our youth. Ignorance is what politicians like Landrieu traffic in and depend on.
This particular ploy needs to fail so it will send an unequivocal message to those at the top that we are neither stupid nor ignorant. New Orleans won’t be fooled.
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.