Why is he up there?

In concluding my second post about Confederate monuments, I asked, “What to do?” I want to start that discussion with two segments from Mitch Landrieu’s book, In the Shadow of Statues, in which the former New Orleans mayor writes about the process of his decision to remove confederate monuments. It started with a conversation with Wynton Marsalis over lunch, in which Landrieu wanted to recruit Marsalis to participate in the celebration of New Orleans’ tricentennial.

Landrieu began,

Most people think of Wynton as a jazz musician. I consider Wynton Marsalis a force of nature. I gave a verbal sketch of my plans for the three-hundredth anniversary year and asked him to help.

“I’ll do it. But there’s something I’d like you to do.” Marsalis answered.

“What’s that?”

“Take down the Robert E. Lee statue.”

“You lost me on that.”

“I don’t like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle.”

“Why is that?”

“Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?”

Suddenly I was listening.

“Louis Armstrong left and never came back. He did not even want to be buried in his hometown,” he continued.

Later, during his story of the grinding 2-year bureaucratic, legal, and political struggle to remove three monuments —the White League obelisk and the statues of Generals P.T. Beauregard and R.E. Lee—Landrieu recounted another meeting in which an African American businesswoman offered her comments on the Lee monument. A New Orleans native who had moved away for work, she hadn’t given much thought to the Lee icon until her young daughter was in town with her one time to visit family. As they were driving along St. Charles Avenue, the girl said,

“What’s that statue up there?”

“Robert E. Lee.” (her mother answered)

“Mama, who is that?”

“The general who led the Confederates in the Civil War.”

“Well, was he fighting for me?”

“No, he wasn’t. He was fighting to keep people slaves.”

“Then why is he up there?”

Landrieu’s story, based on a desire to do the morally right thing and follow the letter of the law, demands our attention. He makes clear that the memorials issue is a heart a local issue and a legal issue. One must understand who controls the monuments, who owns them, who maintains them and what is required to legally remove them. And then, the local leaders who favor removal must build community support for the process of removal.

Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family said, “The Confederate statues were put up when they were put up, not just after the war but largely during periods of Civil Rights tension in the 20th century, to send a message about white supremacy, and to sentimentalize people who had actively fought to preserve the system of slavery.”

Once you know the story, it’s hard not to agree with removal.