By Chris Staudinger
Several civil rights groups, including the The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater New Orleans, held a press conference today in Lee Circle asking city leaders to support the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue and name from the public space. Children stomped on the burnt remains of a Confederate flag as several leaders spoke about what the 72-foot monument means to the community.
“We’re not talking about erasing history today,” said Angela Kinlaw, a community organizer, “We’re talking about no longer holding up the kind of white supremacy that has held people down for far too long.”
She continued, “For all of the white people who say, ‘We don’t understand what the big deal is because we weren’t a part of slavery, we didn’t contribute to that,’ we’re here to say that institutionalized racism – the standing of these towers – this is our oppression today. So when you stand in silence, you do condone white supremacy, you do condone slavery, you do condone defending of slavery.”
Onlookers did not stand in silence. Tensions flared after a man held a Louisiana history book in his shaky hands and asked, “Which pages will I have to tear out next?” The question led to a circle of people speaking in increasing volumes about Hitler, free speech, and, eventually, the need for calm. One man in a passing vehicle on St. Charles avenue shouted, “Keep the statue!”
The press conference coincided with the funeral of South Carolina state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He was one of nine people shot dead by a self-proclaimed white supremacist at an historic black church in Charleston. The massacre prompted many government officials, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to rethink the display of Confederate monuments in public spaces.
Debate, at times vitriolic, has ensued on social media. In the papers, the editorial board of NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune has endorsed the removal of Lee’s statue: “It is time to take down the Lee memorial and take a hard look at other Confederate monuments across the city. Not to try to erase the past or deny history, but to ensure that the cityscape reflects the inclusive, tolerant, open heart of New Orleans.” A guest column in the Advocate takes a slightly different view. Mary Niall Mitchell, the Chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans, and doctoral candidate Amber Nicholson, write: “Rather than remove these monuments from sight, as some have proposed, we ought to do what is much more difficult: reimagine these symbols of the Confederacy in a public way to reflect the totality of the Civil War and its place in the city’s history.”