Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Monuments As Mirrors

Monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, the
Battle of Liberty Place & P.G.T. Beauregard
Following the Supreme Court's controversial ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder back in 2013, Republican state legislators in states like North Carolina, Florida and Texas literally rushed to pass restrictive voter ID laws designed to erect intentional barriers to block people of color from participating in the electoral process.

They argued (in part) that the entrenched systematic racism and overt bigotry that existed when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, no longer exists.

In a remarkably ironic twist of logic, extremist conservative activists were able to begin reintroducing the same kinds of racially discriminatory voting restrictions common during the Jim Crow era by persuading the conservative majority of the Supreme Court that discrimination no longer existed.

And even if it did, they successfully argued, it was the states, not the federal government, who had oversight over changes in state electoral laws to address it.

Four years later, the undercurrent of racial tension that recently surfaced in the city of New Orleans over a rather unremarkable 126-year-old monument made of stone offers a window into the same sinister causes that ignited the racially-motivated struggle for power that still continues in parts of America.  

According to a Times Picayune article by reporter Beau Evans posted on NOLA.com early Monday morning, the atmosphere surrounding the removal of the first of four Confederate monuments from a park in downtown New Orleans was so tense that police snipers were in place on top of a parking garage across the street.

Contractors remove pieces of the Battle of Liberty 
Place obelisk early Monday morning in  
Workers wore helmets, flak jackets and masks, and the doors on cabs of the tractor-trailers that hauled all their equipment in were covered with cardboard and tape.

Those precautions might seem severe, but they were necessary because of death threats received back in January 2016 by the owner and some employees of H&O Investments, a Baton Rouge firm tasked with the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

H&O won the contract after the New Orleans City Council voted to remove the Confederate landmark from the city back in December 2015.

But after the company's owner David Mahler and his wife received not just death threats, but warnings that other clients would pull their business from the firm if they removed the statue of Jefferson Davis (unknown assailants burned his $200,000 Lamborghini - Really.) they backed out.

And the city's plans to remove the monuments were put on hold.

But as numerous news outlets reported yesterday, this time around the city took great precautions to keep the name of the contractor and the day and time of the monument removal secret - and the work began at about 1:30am Monday morning with New Orleans PD officers cordoning off an area to allow the long-delayed, and controversial work to begin.

The obelisk
The job at hand was the removal a 35-foot tall obelisk carved from blocks of granite from a quarry in Maine, the cornerstone of which was was first laid back on September 14, 1891. (Pictured left)

It was originally located on Canal Street to commemorate the efforts of an organization called the Crescent City White League, whose members briefly tried to overthrow Louisiana's Reconstruction government during the Battle of Liberty Place.

The White League was a paramilitary organization started in 1874 in Louisiana made up of former Confederate soldiers, Confederate sympathizers and southerners opposed to the reorganization of state governments in the south enforced by the federal government in the wake of the Civil War.

Like the KKK, they also sought to terrorize recently freed southern African-Americans and prevent them from voting or integrating into society.

The monument itself was designed and built by an interesting tomb and monument designer and architect named Charles A. Orleans. 

Orleans was born in Canada in 1839 and came to the city of New Orleans in 1878 after several business failures in the construction industry in Paris, New York and Chicago.

Compared to his ornate work on the famous Pizatti Tomb in New Orleans' famous Metairie Cemetery, the Battle of Liberty Place monument is relatively simple and unremarkable - but as many news reports yesterday made clear, it's not so much his design as what it represents.

As Evans' Times Picayune article notes, the obelisk, and three other monuments honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, have been a source of friction, division and racial tension in the Big Easy since the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to remove them in December of 2015.

Personally speaking as a student of history, I don't think there's anything wrong with a monument recognizing the Battle of Liberty Place, it was a violent insurrection but it's an important part of American history - particularly when viewed in the context of a young, divided nation struggling to reunite itself after the bloodiest war in American history.

After all, it's just as important that there are monuments that recognize the violent insurrection on the night of October 16, 1859 led by the abolitionist John Brown in Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

The issue is the context in which the obelisk marking the Battle of Liberty Place was constructed in 1891; as a symbol to rally the cause of white supremacy.

41 years later in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression when economic struggles led some white Americans to scapegoat African-Americans and join white supremacist organizations like the KKK or "civic" organizations like White Citizens Councils, or Red Shirts, the New Orleans city government decided to add a plaque to the Battle of Liberty Place monument in order to reaffirm it as a symbol of white supremacy.

There's nothing ambiguous about the words on the plaque added in 1932:

Plaque on the Battle of Liberty Place monument
added in 1932 by the city of New Orleans
"McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people were dully installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). 

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state."

Those are the words and ideals which have caused the obelisk, as well as the other three Confederate statues in New Orleans to become such a despised symbol of divisiveness and racial hatred to the people of the city - and the state.

The monuments, especially when viewed in the context of the racial divisions engineered by right-wing conservatives over the past 8 years, have come to represent a stain on the city of New Orleans to many people of all races and backgrounds.

They're generally loathed and constantly defaced with anti-racist graffiti; it's not the image that the mayor, city council and most city residents want to project to the thousands of tourists who visit every year.

On the other hand, the very idea or removing them has sparked protests, death threats and arson on the part of some people who see them as part of a "southern heritage" that's under threat in the same way that some people in South Carolina protested the permanent removal of the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse in the capital.

To me that kind of backlash is entwined with the same kind of divisive rhetoric dredged up by right-wing media, it's offshoot the Tea Party, and later the Trump campaign - which essentially became a political movement rooted in the idea that what some perceive as "white culture" is somehow under threat by a cultural fabric in America that is becoming more diverse.

Seen in that context, those four monuments in New Orleans are not just monuments made of stone or metal; they're symbols of a darker period in America's past.

Mirrors through which we view a tumultuous, violent and bloody chapter of our nation's history, and ourselves as Americans.

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