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On July 4, around 8 am, the French Quarter was wild with heat. I walked up St. Peter’s and took a left on Bourbon, where street cleaners hosed off the previous evening’s bacchanalia of regret. At Canal, I went left and by the time I reached St. Charles my glasses were fogged with humidity. I crossed Poydras and went to Camp Street. From there, I went right and my pulse quickened, anticipating the famous absence I’d traveled here to witness. I was making this walk well after the press had left town and well before white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, to experience the empty plinth where a statue of General Robert E. Lee once stood.
But then my geography got rusty. I was expecting to see the conspicuous display of emptiness about two blocks straight ahead. My body tensed in anticipation. But crossing Andrew Higgins Street, I looked right to make sure all was clear, and it was in that nanosecond that I unexpectedly got a direct view of the nothingness that was indeed something and—a reaction I don’t typically have—I gasped.
The image moved me: Robert E. Lee, that icon of the Confederacy, that bronze statuesque symbol that once lorded several stories over New Orleans, was, after 132 years, gone, relegated (for now) to municipal storage. And there I stood, a white person who, by virtue of my whiteness, benefits daily from the legacy of slavery, and took in this poignantly empty column, feeling the power history in a way I’d never before felt it.
Weeks earlier, with rare eloquence, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, drove home the emotion in a remarkable speech. The Times-Picayune called it “one of the most honest speeches on race” delivered by “a white southern politician.” Landrieu, in the aftermath of the statue’s removal from Lee Circle, explained to a city that’s 62 percent black how “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” A lot of people said it and I agreed with them—Amen.
And so there it was: a seamless convergence of media, morality, and message. The removal of a city’s offensive Confederate-themed statues, a speech that will be anthologized, the humility of a public figure, a frank look at the reality of racism, and now this eerie lone column, a stark and unifying exclamation point on a Southern landscape. And yet, in spite of myself, something in my gut told me that General Lee should have stayed.
The Problem with Jackson
Before leaving the French Quarter for Lee Circle, I spent a few moments in Jackson Square contemplating the lone statue of Andrew Jackson. As an historian, I knew Jackson fairly well. I knew he was a slaveholder. I knew he was a man who built his identity around killing Indians. I knew that his reputation as an ethnic cleanser helped get him ousted from the twenty-dollar bill.
Knowing all this, I wondered how this swaggering crusader for racial purity still sat lionized atop his rearing horse, tipping his hat to the city he saved at the Battle of New Orleans, the city that, as it purged its obvious symbols of the Confederacy, refused—as Landrieu did—to include in that purge a figure who helped make the Confederacy possible.
There’s no question that removing a Confederate era statue—a monument put in place to remind blacks that they would never have equal rights—is a symbolic expression of justice. My own reaction to Lee’s absence proved it. But the persistence of Jackson led me to realize something was wrong. It made me wonder if there might be something too easy in the symbolism of Lee’s removal, an ease that exonerated white progressives from doing something far more challenging and consequential for the cause of racial justice than tearing down statues, spitting on them, and sending out virtue signals on Instagram.
After my Jackson-to-Lee walk, I met with Richard Marksbury at a coffee shop near Tulane University. Marksbury, sixty-six and white, is a cultural anthropologist who directs the university’s Asian Studies Program. Of all the arguments marshaled against the statue removals, Marksbury’s stood out for their rigor and manner in which he delivered them—not as a caveat-generating academic, but as an activist affiliated with the all-volunteer Monumental Task Committee, a group founded in 1989 to “restore, repair, and forever maintain all the monuments located in the city.”
Marksbury’s case was this: The white citizenry of New Orleans agreed in 1884 to celebrate Robert E. Lee by erecting a monument to his legacy. Even if that choice was, in Landrieu’s words, on “the wrong side of history and humanity,” it was made without ambiguity by racists interested in furthering the myth of the lost cause. That fact alone—history left the monument there as a kind of primary source for us to interpret—legitimates its right to stay put. “If something is there for 130 years,” Marksbury said, “it’s just part of the landscape.”
I thought, no—not valid. The notion that a memorial should be preserved because, at some point in time, an empowered group of citizens deemed an evil ideology worthy of memorializing only seems reasonable if history is apolitical, unemotional, and entirely relegated to the past. But history is none of those things. Infused in the heated politics of daily life, history is what left me in shock in the shadow of Lee’s empty pedestal. History is what turned Charlottesville into a war zone. History burns those who get close.
But Marksbury, if only in an indirect way, had a point. He directed my attention to Audubon Park. There, he explained, “you will find a statue of the Buffalo Soldiers.” He said, “Do you know what those soldiers did to the Native Americans? They mutilated them. So, what about the feelings of Native Americans? If you’re going to take down Robert E. Lee, you’ve got to take down the Buffalo Soldiers.”
And as for Jackson, he noted that when Take ’Em Down Nola—the organization dedicated to removing New Orleans’s racially offensive monuments—demonstrated to have Jackson removed, they were absolutely right to do so. “Landrieu,” he said, “could have appealed to the emotions of the Native American community.” But he “remained silent.” It was a silence that kept ringing in my ears.
Marksbury’s argument does not condemn the removal of Confederate-themed monuments. It condemns inconsistency. One can argue that the NOLA removals were history in the making and that, in time, the moral logic underscoring that approach would be equally applied to other symbols of racism—including Andrew Jackson and many others. That would be good (if extremely ambitious) history. But that’s not what was happening in New Orleans. The mayor and city council removed Lee and other confederates while explicitly refusing to touch the image of Jackson. It was sloppy history.
Politicians can get away with that. But professional historians cannot. When I exchanged emails with Victoria Bynum, author of several books on the myth of the Lost Cause as well as The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (which inspired a 2016 Hollywood movie), she was adamant that the public expression of history be scrupulously accurate and consistent. “I so fervently want the true history of the Civil War understood at the popular level,” she wrote. “And it saddens me that so many Americans, and not just Southerners, actually believe that the Civil War was not caused by slavery.”
Of course, she’s right. But was removing statues of confederate generals the right way to achieve historical accuracy in public space? (Bynum, for the record suggested the monuments go into a museum.) Again, it could be. If we honestly intended to take the logic underscoring Lee’s removal to the necessary extreme then we might get on with the massive project of de-anthologizing the public landscape of all racist vestiges. Or, acknowledging the difficulty of consistency on this point, we might instead rethink the logic behind statue removals altogether.
From the Bottom Up
One transformation that has touched the entire historical profession over the past two generations is the idea that we should do history “from the bottom up.” What kind of history was done in New Orleans when the statues came down? In a sense, it was top down. You had a white man who, largely through his own initiative and the power of his position as mayor, swept historical markers from their pedestals. Landrieu’s speech was grand. But shouldn’t skepticism be stoked when a May 26, 2017, editorial predicts that “as Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable 1860 Cooper Union Speech about slavery propelled the little-known Illinois lawyer toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, so might Landrieu’s Gallier Hall speech prompt Democrats to give the Louisiana mayor a closer look”? We should ask: Who tangibly benefits when Lee goes missing and General Jackson—of the Battle of New Orleans fame—stays put?
Three other Confederate monuments also came down around the time of the Lee statue removal, leading some lesser-known citizens suggested a bottom up approach. News reports called their behavior criminal acts of vandalism. But one might more charitably label them interpretations of public history made by the disenfranchised. At the base of the Robert E. Lee monument, someone spray-painted the phrase “white supremacy is a LIE” in sharp black letters. There we go, I thought.
Such a brutally accurate interpretation—obviously illegal and, if allowed to run amok, pointless—was in its singularity of expression and incisive moral commentary a far greater challenge to the myth of the Lost Cause than the nothingness that now rests on the pedestal. Plus, the motives in this case were clear—to bring truth to the monument—and nobody’s political prospects were improved in the process.
With that tag, truth spoke to power because the embarrassing emblem of that horrible power remained in place to be witnessed and interpreted. Certainly, we can take a cue from the vandals and find ways to demonize these relics with appropriate levels of scorn—new explanatory plaques come to mind—rather than sending them crashing once and for all to the pavement. And—more to the point—certainly there could be greater benefits for racial justice and historical understanding by engaging in ongoing interpretations of what these monuments mean in the here and now.
Forgetting How to Feel Shame
While taking an Uber car in New Orleans, I passed several streets named after slaveholders (or those who condoned slaveholding)—Henry Clay, Zachary Taylor, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Washington. Prompted by this observation, I asked my driver, an African American business owner in his forties, what he thought about the statue removals. He paused and looked at me hard in the rearview mirror. “Taking those statues down was a bad idea because they reminded white people what was done to us.” Then he added: “We are not educated.”
It took me a moment to realize what he meant by “we” and “educated,” but what he was saying was that white people don’t know how to feel shame. We haven’t been taught how to confront the troubled history and legacy of slavery in a way that demands our sustained discomfort and puts us at risk in public space. True, by wishing the statues away, we justifiably honor the crushed feelings African Americans experience when living amidst monuments that once honored slavery. But less justifiably, by wishing these statues away we also ease the guilt of progressive whites who, for altogether different reasons, also hate looking up to Lee, Jackson, and, dare one say it, Mr. Jefferson.
Don’t worry about me, my Uber driver was saying. Worry about you. He wanted, in essence, whites to swallow a healthy dose of shame, and to bring that struggle to bear on our thinking about racial justice. However paradoxically, the white supremacist thugs who marched through Charlottesville only intensified the imperative. They further demanded that the rest of us, as we witness (and die from) their violent hatred, connect the awful racism of the past to that of the present through a bridge paved with shame, the kind of shame that, from the bottom up, can overwhelm the utter lack of it that currently swaggers at the top of American politics.
If that becomes the goal we choose to pursue with our remaining Confederacy monuments—and I cannot think of a better way to use public history—then we might take a note from the New Orleans vandals and begin to add to, rather than subtract from, the existing textual landscape.
That is exactly what the civil rights lawyer, MacArthur Foundation fellow, and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), Bryan Stevenson, is doing in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI marked Montgomery with a series of historical plaques acknowledging the warehouses used in the city’s slave trade. This effort, in addition to EJI’s current project to build a national memorial dedicated to lynching victims, defies the city’s antiquated markers to the Confederacy (of which there are more than fifty). And what do you think Stevenson wants whites to feel when staring at lists of the lynched? Not a sense of ease. Not a sense of relief.
Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame, this cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness. And if that’s what we’re in for, if that’s what must happen for us to inch toward true racial reconciliation, then moving Confederate monuments out of sight becomes less an act of racial justice than yet another expression of the same white privilege that got us into this mess to begin with.
James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.