As some Southern states celebrate the pro-slavery Confederate States of America, New Orleans is tearing down symbols of its racist past.
According to CNN, New Orleans’s latest move happened in the dark of night, as the city tore down the first of four memorials that honor the Confederate States: the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which was erected in 1891 to celebrate a deadly insurgency in 1874 — led by the white supremacist Crescent City White League — against an integrated police force and state militia.
New Orleans also plans to dismantle a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. The city will put the monuments in storage as it tries to locate a museum or other location for them.
The move has been highly controversial in New Orleans, leading to protests and threats against city workers. That’s apparently why the monument was taken down when it was still dark out on Monday morning.
Still, the move is noteworthy: Today is Confederate Memorial Day, when a few Southern states (although not Louisiana) honor the insurgent states that seceded from the US in an attempt to keep slavery.
Many people argue that honoring the Confederacy is really about honoring Southern heritage, not about defending white supremacy. But, based on the historical evidence, it is impossible to separate the Confederacy from white supremacy, which is why New Orleans is now working to tear down these monuments.
Yes, the Civil War was about slavery
This isn’t the first time the historical debate about the Confederacy has played out in the modern political arena. Back in 2015, following a mass shooting at a black church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, South Carolina finally took down a Confederate flag that previously flew at its state capitol.
Back then, people vigorously argued that the flag — just like these other Confederate monuments — was not meant to be racist, but rather attempted to honor Southern heritage. The problem is this heritage is mired in racism — as demonstrated by states’ justifications for seceding at the start of the Civil War.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in the Atlantic, South Carolina, the first state to secede, said in its official statement that it saw any attempts to abolish slavery and grant rights to black Americans as “hostile to the South” and “destructive of its beliefs and safety”:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
In a letter encouraging Texas to secede and join the Confederate States, Louisiana Commissioner George Williamson was even more explicit. He argued that the Confederacy was needed “to preserve the blessings of African slavery” and that the Confederate states “are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
These statements leave no doubt that the South fought in the Civil War to protect the institution of slavery.
Indeed, the first monument to come down in New Orleans was originally put up to honor an explicitly white supremacist group’s insurgence against a racially integrated police force. And the other monuments honor people who defended an explicitly racist institution like slavery — including Jefferson Davis, who was not only president of the Confederate States of America but actually called American slavery “the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name ‘slavery’ has ever been applied.”
Given this historical evidence, New Orleans is finally taking down monuments to such an explicitly racist cause.