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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Prominent Confederate monuments long taken for granted on the streets of this Deep South city may be coming down as allegiance to Confederate symbols slowly erodes in the South and blacks across the nation demand an end to racism and police brutality.
This week and next, the New Orleans City Council will take up the issue of removing four monuments linked to Confederate history. A vote is set for next week and it looks as though a majority of the council favors their removal despite stiff opposition.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu first called for taking down the monuments following the June mass shooting at the African-American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist that left nine parishioners dead.
"It became impossible to ignore the dangers that are inherent in allowing those symbols to stand and to give them pride of place across the South," said Randy Sparks, a Tulane University historian who specializes in Southern history. "That shooting brought it home in a way that people could no longer ignore."
In the shooting's aftermath, Confederate symbols have been falling out of favor fast — and in many places being removed from public sight.
In South Carolina, a Confederate battle flag was removed from the Capitol grounds. In Mississippi, colleges have opted to stop flying the state flag because it includes the Confederate emblem. The University of Texas has removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
The push to remove racially charged symbolism has fused, too, with the outrage over police shootings of unarmed blacks and lingering patterns of racism — a current movement embodied by the group Black Lives Matter and student protests, such as what happened at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of the college system president.
In the South, allegiance to Confederate symbols has been slowly eroding, according to David Butler, a human geographer at University of Southern Mississippi.
"It's a generational thing," he said. "I would say since Generation X and onwards, the connection is not there."
With globalization and exposure to other cultures and places, he said younger Southerners simply don't feel that bond with the Confederate past.
The New Orleans mayor's proposal is bold as it takes aim at some well-known landmarks that have stood where they are for a century or longer.
Poised for removal is a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee standing atop a tall column in a busy traffic circle; also an imposing statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate general, mounted on a horse in the center of another traffic circle at the entrance to City Park could be struck from the cityscape.
A statue of Davis, the Confederate president, and an obelisk dedicated to the Crescent City White League, white supremacists who sought to topple the biracial government after the Civil War, are the other two monuments the mayor wants off the city streets.
Still, the Confederacy debate stirs passions in the South — and New Orleans is proof of that.
Due to high level of interest, the City Council has put aside Thursday afternoon to hear an outpouring from citizens both for and against the removal of the monuments. Next Thursday it has scheduled a special meeting to vote on the removal ordinance.
On Tuesday, a volunteer group that looks after monuments across the city said it had collected about 31,000 signatures of people opposed to the removal of the monuments.
"The word Confederate has become a buzzword for ugly," said Pierre McGraw, the president of the Monumental Task Committee Inc., the monuments group.
"But a lot of us were Confederates," he added. "New Orleans was part of the Confederacy. For a lot of people, these people were heroes. It looks like we are sanitizing history. Where does it end?"
For the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, a Unitarian minister, the end can't come soon enough. He was one of dozens of pastors from a cross-section of faiths that demanded the removal of the monuments in August.
"Equity has been denied," he said, "and one symbol of that denial is that we lift up symbols of people who supported slavery."
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