When the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Friday, it reached the end of a very long era. The statue had been there since 1884, but on Friday, it became the last of four Confederate symbols to be removed from the city's public spaces over the last month. Although the statues' removal was controversial throughout the city, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a passionate speech in support of the progress.
In addressing the Lee statue's removal, Landrieu challenged his city — and the country — to confront its troubling past. "New Orleans was America's largest slave market, a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold, and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture," he explained. "America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched."
Landrieu compared Confederate symbols to "a burning cross on someone's lawn," classifying them as a symbol of "terrorism."
Beyond his words, Landrieu's government indeed did make the city of New Orleans confront the Confederate past on Friday. Lee's statue was removed in broad daylight for all to see, whereas the city's previous statue removals had been done at night, likely for security reasons. According to NPR, workers wore flak jackets and protestors lined the streets during those removals.
The New Orleans city council voted to remove the statues, but Landrieu has been credited with leading the charge. His message to New Orleans brings a clear and important message for the entire country, as Americans continue to struggle with race relations and an acceptance of diversity.
The appropriateness of such Confederate symbols has been up for debate in cities across the country lately. Earlier this month, a torch-wielding crowd gathered in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Lee statue there. Dozens of people reportedly surrounded the statue, chanting mantras like, "Russia is our friend," and, "You will not replace us." Charlottesville officials condemned the demonstration, calling it "profoundly ignorant" and "disgusting." Still, few city leaders have gone as far as Landrieu, who proclaimed that Confederate soldiers "were not patriots."
Clearly, Landrieu envisions a more united America — "with liberty and justice for all, not some." It's an America that does not elevate Confederate leaders to a place of prominence, and certainly an America where citizens are not threatened with lynching. Landrieu and his city council colleagues were able to remove the public symbols of the Confederacy in his city, but his words can transcend far beyond Bourbon Street.