Watch what’s happening in New Orleans and other Southern cities regarding monuments and memorials celebrating the Confederacy. This could be a significant turning point for our nation.
New Orleans recently took down three prominent Confederate statues and a monument heralding white supremacy. The four pieces will be preserved and treated as historical artifacts but they no longer will dominate town squares or occupy other conspicuous locations in the city.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained that, after long reflection, he had decided that the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, and especially an obelisk near the French Quarter commemorating a Reconstruction-era attack by white supremacists on the city’s integrated police force had to come down. He said they did not reflect the city’s rich, melting-pot heritage that made it a destination for people of all races from all corners of the world, particularly Africans, who initially arrived there in shackles.
African-Americans make up about 60 percent of New Orleans’ population, and many of them, along with many white residents, believe the statues represent an offensive celebration of the Confederacy. Nonetheless, the decision was controversial, with police and workers involved in dismantling the monuments receiving death threats.
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But Landrieu was convinced it was the right decision: “I think it’s hard for people to see the truth. … I want to gently peel people’s hands off of a false narrative of history.”
New Orleans is not the only place this issue is being debated. A number of Southern cities have decided to remove statues or change the names of streets and buildings associated with the Confederacy.
The Charlottesville, Va., City Council recently voted to remove a statue of Lee from the city park that had been named for him and to rename the park. Officials in Biloxi, Miss., voted not to fly the state flag on public grounds because the flag has an image of the Confederate battle flag in its upper-left corner.
Many cite South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from its Statehouse grounds following Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African-American parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church as inspiration for confronting the issue of public symbols of the Confederacy.
To some degree, the motivation is strictly practical. Biloxi officials note that the city depends heavily on tourism, and they want to be welcoming to all.
But something deeper is afoot here. This debate isn’t simply about statues, street names and flags.
It appears to be the beginning of a wholesale re-examination of a false rationale for the Civil War that has been successfully perpetrated by revisionists since the war ended. It looks like the beginning of the end for the myth of the Lost Cause.
The story of a Confederacy conceived to uphold states’ rights, to defend an agricultural South from the aggressions of an industrialized North, to preserve the uniquely Southern way of life has been carefully nurtured for more than 150 years by those who lost the war but sought to win the peace on their terms.
But Americans, whatever their race, have become increasingly skeptical of the myth and more accepting of the historical argument that the real cause for the war was slavery. The South went to war to retain its most valuable property, its labor force and its primary source of wealth.
That has been vigorously disputed over the years, and it will continue to be. But the hollowness of the Lost Cause and the persuasiveness of the facts are becoming more widely accepted by the day, especially by younger Americans.
And that is why the statues and flags are starting to come down.
Not all the artifacts of the Confederacy and the monuments to its leaders will end up in museums or storerooms. In some cases, old statues may be juxtaposed with new ones.
How about a slew of monuments to volunteers on the Underground Railroad?
This isn’t a matter of political correctness or rewriting history. It’s about seeing history more clearly with the advantage of more than a century and a half of hindsight.
As Landrieu so eloquently put it, let’s gently peel people’s hands off the false narrative. It’s not just about statues, it’s about seeing the light.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.