In January of last year, a seven-member mayoral commission recommended the removal of two of four Confederate era monuments from Baltimore's public parks. Sixteen months later, the offending statues haven't budged. While some "interpretive" signage has been added, they remain where they are and what they are — symbols of racism, fond tributes to the "Lost Cause" cult.
Last week in a city about as deep in the Deep South as possible and where there is far greater affection for the Confederacy than in Baltimore, workers removed that last of four monuments deemed just as offensive — tributes to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard and the Battle of Liberty Place. Emotions ran so high in the Big Easy that the contractors who did the work pasted over their company logos to keep their involvement secret, the public wasn't given a timetable for exactly when the statues would be removed and security was out in force.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu didn't shirk his responsibility. He didn't drag his feet or choose to let the next administration deal with the controversy. He wasn't swayed by arguments that these monuments had some transcendent artistic or historic merit that made them off-limits. Instead, he gave a speech in which he clearly and convincingly explained why removing these monuments was not a denial of a benign history but an avowal of the terrorism and white supremacy they represented and that was no longer to be tolerated. "They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city," he said.
The Confederacy was on the "wrong side of humanity," the mayor explained, fighting against the United States, not for it. The monuments offer only a sanitized vision of that history with noble leaders striking heroic poses. Such a "false narrative" — one that ignores the enslavement, death and terror that the Confederacy actually stood for — "weakens us." The city had to "make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago" so that we can "more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and force a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union."
For many, decades-old statues are a trivial thing. We see them so often — like the rendering of Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback in Baltimore's Wyman Park — that we probably don't give them much thought. But Baltimore's Civil War past is rather shameful, beginning with the 1861 riot on Pratt Street in which antiwar Copperheads and Confederate sympathizers clashed with northern militia producing what historians have described as the first Union casualties of the war. (The Sun wasn't on the right side of the war either, incidentally.) What is one to make a century and a half later of a tribute to Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that voided the Missouri Compromise and prohibited Congress from regulating slavery anywhere? How is the average African American parent to explain these loving tributes to slave ownership in a city with a paucity of Union adoration (a single statue in Wyman Park commemorates Union soldiers and sailors)?
Remembering our history is important, of course, but it ought to be seen clearly. Ennobling Justice Taney doesn't heal old wounds, it encourages people living in the 21st century to view the worst of times through rose-colored glasses. We do not celebrate slave ships, so why must we celebrate the men who defended that system? To inspire future generations to admire these individuals who thought it perfectly fine to treat people of a different skin color as property? Or perhaps to comfort the alt-right?
Mayor Landrieu understood that you can't run away from your past, but you can correct your mistakes. "We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city's history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations," he said. Someone should send a copy of the speech to Mayor Catherine Pugh who ought to revisit a painful issue that her predecessor failed to properly lay to rest. In a city still healing from the Freddie Gray unrest, still looking for better schools and better job opportunities and, perhaps most of all, evidence that black lives matter as much as the lives of those who look like Taney, Jackson and Lee, it would be nice to put away ill-conceived statues that tear us apart and focus on a brighter, more unified future.