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In the case of New Orleans’ controversial monuments, symbols matter — but this also is a teachable moment for history 

click to enlarge This 2004 photo of the Jefferson Davis statue in Mid-City demonstrates that New Orleans' Confederate monuments have been controversial for a long time.

PHOTO BY BART EVERSON/CREATIVE COMMONS

This 2004 photo of the Jefferson Davis statue in Mid-City demonstrates that New Orleans' Confederate monuments have been controversial for a long time.

The New Orleans City Council is set to vote this Thursday, Dec. 17, on an ordinance authorizing the removal of four monuments to Confederate icons from public property. Sadly, but predictably, the issue boiled over Dec. 10 at a contentious public hearing in City Hall. Passions run high on both sides of the debate; shrill rhetoric too often drowns out voices of reason.

  Earlier last week, a group called the Monumental Task Committee, which raises private funds to restore public monuments across the city, announced that it had obtained more than 30,000 signatures on a petition opposing the monuments' removal. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, however, said only 4.500 signatories were New Orleans residents. Let's be clear: In this debate the voices that count are those of New Orleanians.

  Also last week, District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell surprised many (including Landrieu) by issuing a statement against the monuments' removal. Interestingly, Cantrell withdrew her own removal ordinance in July, after Landrieu proposed his version. Now, Cantrell said, removal was being "thrust upon the City and the Council from the top down after it was created by a small, select group of individuals." Council Vice President Stacy Head made similar remarks in emails to constituents, but her statements were not overtly aimed at Landrieu.

  At the Dec. 10 hearing, dozens of speakers and others squared off, sometimes heatedly. Amid the months-long sound and fury, what seems overlooked is the opportunity that council members and the mayor have had to move the conversation — and the monuments — to a better place.

  For starters, the monuments are not all equal. Let's begin with the low-hanging fruit: There is no justification for the so-called Liberty Monument commemorating the 1874 riot by members of the Crescent City White League against the integrated New Orleans Metropolitan Police. It needs to go. In its place should be a monument to all who died in that pitched battle — along with an explanation of what really happened.

  As for the three other statues — Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle, Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway in Mid-City, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback at the entrance to New Orleans City Park — each should be considered on its own historical significance.

  Many proposals have been proffered, from keeping them to scrapping all four. Some suggest putting them in a museum, which is problematic because that would create, well, a Confederate Museum. There are ways to place them in historic context, just as businessman John Cummings turned the Whitney Plantation into a sobering museum showcasing the slave experience.

  We agree with the mayor that symbols matter, but we also agree with historians who have called for making this a teachable moment. For example, the monuments could become part of a public exhibit that includes statues and markers honoring Union heroes as well as local civil rights leaders. In addition to adding much-needed historical context, that would give us all a monumental lesson about New Orleans' role in America's long — and ongoing — march to freedom.

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