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Monday, May 22, 2017

MONUMENTAL DECISIONS

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Confederate flags and statues are under attack

When Dylan Roof murdered nine African-Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S. C., on June 17, 2015, it reignited deep-seated feelings of blacks and civil rights activists on two fronts. The first was a picture of the 21-year-old murderer posing in front of a car featuring a South Carolina license plate depicting the Confederate flag. Should the Confederate flag continue to be allowed to be displayed? The second front, which was related to the first, was an attack on Confederate statues and monuments.

As a result, Confederate flags, a symbol of both racism and southern pride, have been removed from flag poles throughout the South, including the state of South Carolina, and on other paraphernalia. Other states which have taken action to remove the flag include Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia and Virginia. Having succeeded with that effort, the movement sought the take-down of monuments depicting Confederate generals. Nowhere has the movement been more successful than in New Orleans.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of the monuments in the aftermath of the massacre at the black church. The City Council voted 6-1 in 2015 to remove the monuments after contentious public meetings where supporters and opponents heckled one another. Contractors involved in the removal process have been threatened, and the work stalled for months as monument supporters sought help in vain from the courts.

Workers removing the first two memorials wore bulletproof vests, helmets and face coverings to shield their identity as the work took place well after midnight.

The monuments removed include one of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s only president, which has stood since 1911; one of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the attack at Fort Sumter that marked the outbreak of the Civil War, in place since 1915; and the most prominent of the statues, Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle, unveiled in 1884.

Mayor Landrieu said, “We take another step in defining our city not by our past but by our bright future. We will not allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of New Orleans.” A poll conducted by the University of New Orleans found that only 34 percent support the removal of the Confederate monuments. Landrieu is term-limited and cannot seek a third term as mayor.

Closer to home, a Citizens Advisory Committee appointed by the Caddo Commission is wrapping up public hearings to make recommendations about the Confederate monument on the grounds of the Caddo Courthouse. The Commission charged the committee to keep in mind three things: the historical, social and economic impact of the monument. R. J. Johnson, Advisory Committee chair, said that the committee will take its time in reaching a recommendation. He cited a bill currently in the Louisiana Legislature dealing with Confederate monuments.

That bill, introduced by state Rep.

Thomas Carmody of Shreveport, has passed the House with a vote of 65-31 after hours of emotional debate. The entire Legislative Black Caucus voted against it. Carmody’s bill bars local governments and municipalities from removing plaques and statues to military figures and events until a public vote is held. “My bill in its current posture is a perfect exercise of democracy. It allows for the people to have their input in the decision to remove military monuments from the public places in which they live,” Carmody said on the House floor.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain. Should it pass the Senate and is signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards, how would that affect New Orleans, where statutes are already being taken down? As mentioned earlier, only 34 percent favor the removal of the statues in the Big Easy.

The monument on the courthouse grounds has been there since 1906. It features the busts of Confederate Generals Henry Watkins Allen, P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. But in the final analysis, the monument could become a legal issue rather than an emotional one. At the public hearings, most whites want the monument to remain in place while most blacks want it moved. But there is a lingering question, and that is, who owns the land where the monument sits – the parish or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which claims that parcel of land where the monument sits was deeded to them.

But the Advisory Committee will eventually make “non-binding suggestions” to the Caddo Commission about the statue. Those recommendations could range from removal or demolition to creating companion memorials, to leaving the monument standing as it is. But before we get to that point, we will have to wait and see how Carmody’s bill fares in Baton Rouge. If it passes the Senate and is signed into law, it’s a whole new ball game. If not, the Commission will eventually have to make the decision on the monument. Depending upon what that recommendation might be, then the United Daughters of the Confederacy could enter the picture.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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