What shall we do with our Confederate monuments, now that the South finally seems ready to admit it lost the Civil War? Mayor Mitch Landrieu suggests that we discuss taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee and renaming Lee Circle. He proposes a similar fate for statues of Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the infamous "Liberty Monument" (which celebrates a riot by the White League in 1874).
Those ideas and more have gained traction in the wake of the horrific murder of nine black worshipers at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. They were gunned down by a crazed 21-year-old white supremacist whose hatred was stoked by racist websites and organizations. The Confederate battle flag appears prominently on such sites and in photos of Dylann Roof, whose online manifesto presaged his killing spree in Charleston.
Indeed, even longtime defenders of Confederate symbols have caved in the face of public opprobrium after the Charleston massacre. Republican lawmakers across the South — once among the stouthearted guardians of "history" — are suddenly falling all over themselves to remove the Confederacy's battle flag from public spaces. Good for them.
Claims that the Confederate flag is "part of history" don't cut it anymore. Nobody really believes that tripe anyway. Lots of bad things are part of history; that doesn't mean they deserve a place of honor in today's society. Like so many other reminders of mankind's ignoble past, Confederate symbols that evoke hatred and oppression should be relegated to what Ronald Reagan famously dubbed "the ash heap of history."
That's an easy call to make on the question of whether to continue placing the battle flag in statehouses or local courthouses. But what about New Orleans' Confederate monuments? "That's really what museums are for," says Landrieu.
So begins the local discussion.
The important thing, is that we have a real conversation about this and other aspects of race, racism, reconciliation and New Orleans' future. That was the point of Landrieu appearing at the one-year anniversary of the Welcome Table New Orleans last week at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. The Welcome Table is an initiative of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The program gets people from diverse backgrounds to open up to one another about their experiences with and perspectives on race — and, over the course of weeks and months, to figure out a way to unite behind a community project as a means of fostering reconciliation.
At the end of the last week's program, at which three groups proposed their community projects, Landrieu pitched his own project: taking down the Confederate monuments. He admitted that his timing seemed tied to the Charleston murders, but he said he actually got the idea a year ago from Grammy Award-winning New Orleans musician Wynton Marsalis, whom Landrieu asked to serve on the city's tricentennial commission.
New Orleans needs to have this conversation, and it needs to extend beyond the fate of a handful of monuments to long-dead Confederates. Symbols matter, but so do attitudes and public policies. Ultimately, the conversation needs to be about our shared future, even if we stir some old passions in the process.