NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Civil rights leaders and others in New Orleans had been pushing for the removal of the Liberty Place Monument for at least three decades, without success.
Statues of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard had been defaced with graffiti from time to time, but there was no sign of a realistic attempt to remove them from their prominent spots on the New Orleans landscape.
Then came Dylann Roof.
The race war he reportedly sought when he gunned down nine parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015 hasn't materialized. But, he did ignite something.
The Liberty Monument is gone. Jefferson Davis was hoisted from his pedestal last week with Lee and Beauregard slated to follow.
It's not just in New Orleans. In Caddo Parish, an advisory committee is holding hearings on the future of a Confederate memorial at the parish courthouse. On the Gulf Coast of neighboring Mississippi, Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich ordered the state flag — which includes the Confederate battle emblem — removed from display at city buildings in late April, saying he wants tourists to feel welcome. In Roof's home state, the battle flag no longer flies at the Capitol.
But the push by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to rid the landscape of four monuments may be the most ambitious of efforts to reassert the idea that, while remembering the Confederate heritage is important, honoring it isn't appropriate.
Landrieu made his proposal soon after Roof's massacre in Charleston and the subsequent posting of pictures of the killer with the Confederate flag.
If the pain of the killings has faded since then, the battle over the monuments in New Orleans remained intense. During the 2015 governor's race Republican candidates blasted Landrieu's move. (Democrat John Bel Edwards, who eventually won, said it should be left up to the city.)
The City Council sided with Landrieu on a 6-1 vote in December of 2015 after hours of emotional back-and-forth among monument supporters and opponents. State and federal court battles delayed the removal for more than 16 months. Protests and counter-protests were tense at monument sites. There have been loud arguments scuffles and arrests. But no war.
Away from the demonstration sites, opinions have been varied and nuanced. And they have spanned racial divides, with some black city residents sympathetic to the idea of keeping the statues as historic landmarks and some whites, most prominently Landrieu, saying it's time to take them down.
If public opinion is turning toward Landrieu's way of thinking, it may be an effect of the passage of time. Or, it could be that, much as an act of terrorism at a Birmingham church pushed the nation closer toward passage of the Civil Rights Act, a massacre at a South Carolina church may have tipped the argument in New Orleans, leading to removal of statues that once seemed as much a part of its landscape as the sprawling oaks.
That's not to say that the enmities are over. Court fights linger. So do the arguments. Decisions are pending on where and how to return the statues to public view in what monument opponents would call an appropriate context.
"This has gone on an inordinate amount of time," state District Judge Kern Reese said last week as he dealt the monument supporters another defeat — refusing to block the apparently imminent removal of the Beauregard statue. It may have been the understatement of the year, given that the legal battles had delayed the removal for nearly 17 months.
Given that the battles are still being fought more than 150 years after the Civil War ended, and that the first of the monuments, the likeness of Lee, went up in 1884, it may have been the understatement of the last century and a half.
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