I don’t want this weekend to slip by without a quick comment about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s address on Friday. The New Orleans mayor chose the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument to deliver remarks about why he believed it was justified. It is a remarkable speech on a number of levels.
First, the mayor could have directed the public to his previous statements. He did not have to give this speech. He also could have reserved his comments to a few words about how he hoped the removal of the four monuments might lead to some kind of healing and an opportunity to turn an important page in the city’s past.
In the end, what Mayor Landrieu chose to do was issue the most direct public statement against the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War to date. I don’t think you can understate its significance. It is impossible for me to imagine a public official giving a speech like this in any southern city even 10 years ago. Even today such a bold stance such as this is somewhat shocking.
I do think there is a little politics at work here. By linking the removal of these monuments so directly with the Lost Cause the mayor may be trying to stake out a position in regard to other monuments, including Andrew Jackson, which Take Em Down Nola has already announced is its next target.
That said, I strongly encourage you to read the speech in its entirety, but for now here are a few excerpts that caught my eye:
So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.
So, let’s start with the facts.
The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
The mayor goes on to quote Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” before sharing the story of an African-American friend who asked how he might explain to his young daughter “why [Lee] stands atop our beautiful city.”
To literally put the confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.
History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.
Before closing with that beautiful passage from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Mayor Landrieu offers the following:
So before we part let us again state the truth clearly.
The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.
As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.
As I said yesterday, I can’t think of a better way to start the new school year if you are teaching the Civil War or Civil War memory in the Fall. There is so much to unpack here, but I found myself nodding in agreement throughout much of it, not necessarily as a justification for removal, but in terms of its appreciation of how the myth of the Lost Cause has for so long blinded us from fully recognizing that the Confederacy was not a benign experiment led by gallant Christian gentleman.
The Confederacy rejected the trend in the western hemisphere away from slavery to embracing it as its very foundation.