Sauntering the flagstones atop the seawall in Charleston last summer I couldn’t miss a man in antique military garb brandishing the banner of the Confederacy. Given the events in the city not long before – the slaughter of nine worshipers by Dylann Roof at an African Methodist Church across from where I was staying – I had to stop and talk. Who knew he’d turn out to be British?
The man – he declined to give his name on account of his pursuing a Green Card – bristled at the notion that his Sunday afternoon ritual (apparently he is a regular on the wall) might be, at best, wrong-headed. He offered that old argument about not ignoring or burying history, freighting it with a short lecture about all the British who perished fighting the Union Army.
It was not the first or last time I heard the pitch, often rehearsed by individuals who have never read a history book in their lives but find no other way to justify romanticising past occurrences of human evil. I barely bothered challenging him, because surely he had heard the protestations before – maybe you’d bring along a Swastika the next time you’re out – and paid zero heed.
The slaughter at the AME Church was soon to deliver victory to those in South Carolina who for years had been objecting to the flying of the same banner – a symbol of the enslavement of African Americans and the war that was fought to perpetuate it – on the grounds of the State Legislature in the state’s capital, Columbia. On the orders of then Governor Nikki Haley, now Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, the flag was lowered and removed.
If politically fraught, the furling of the flag was nonetheless physically uncomplicated. Not so what is about to happen in New Orleans. Just a few days back, a three-judge panel in federal court gave what appears to be the final green light to the city’s leadership to remove no fewer than four, not insubstantial granite monuments honouring so-called heroes of the Confederacy.
This has been a long time coming for a city that sees itself as an oasis of liberalism in a deeply conservative state. Previous efforts over decades to raze the monuments, three of which immortalise the Confederate generals Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, and PGT Beauregard, came to naught amid opposition from those so-called history-protectors who were exposed by their alliance with white supremacists, including David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan Kook, or KKK.
Perhaps the best-known of the now doomed landmarks sits in the centre of Lee Circle where Uptown transitions to the city’s business district and the French Quarter just beyond. If you don’t know the connotations, it’s handsome, a slightly shorter version of Nelson’s Column in London. On a cool evening this week, the setting sun to the west cast a gentle glow on General Lee’s frock coat tails. Park employees were fussing the flower beds that surround it and a pair of insouciant tourists were taking selfies at its base.
The Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, has singled out the fourth monument as the “most offensive” of them all. This is the Liberty Place obelisk, erected to mark an uprising by the Crescent City White League, a forebear of the KKK, against the Reconstruction administration in the wake of the Confederate Army’s defeat, when New Orleans was the capital of Louisiana.
Landrieu is now moving forward with removal plans swiftly but fully aware that potholes may yet await him. The last time the city got close to achieving its goal, the contractor awarded the job of dismantling the landmarks pulled out at the last minute after its owner received death threats. A week after, his car was torched on the street. “Historians” can play rough, it seems.
That’s why the bidding process now will be a bit different. The company that wins the contract to rid New Orleans of these barnacles will be told their identities will be protected. Nor, meanwhile, will any public money go into the demolitions. Rather, the necessary funds have been provided to the city by an anonymous donor, someone – there are no clues I’m aware of – who clearly thinks it’s the right moment for the Crescent City to shed its Confederate blemishes.
Of course, you have to ask, where do you stop? Are their mausoleums in the city’s celebrated and often tourist-infested above-ground cemeteries of families that fought for the preservation of slavery? Sure, and they will be left alone. The activists who fought so hard to have these first four monuments demolished, notably “Take ‘em Down Nola”, won’t give up until former President Andrew Jackson is removed from the French Quarter square that bears his name. He was a former slave trader after all and the man who sent the Native Americans on their Trail of Tears.
Still, Landrieu and his allies deserve our thanks. The Saddam Hussein moment is coming to New Orleans – you remember the roping and toppling of his statue in Baghdad – at a time when we are on full alert to gathering evidence that the election of Donald Trump has emboldened America’s bigots and racists, whether we are considering the more than 100 threatening phone calls made to synagogues or the shooting of two Indian-born defence industry employees in a sports bar in suburban Kansas City by a white man now in custody who told friends he thought they were from Iran.
Which brings us to Mississippi. It still refuses to re-imagine its state flag that features, in its top left-hand corner, the old Confederate banner. There was some debate about it this week in the state legislature but – hold on – the topic was a proposal from a conservative lawmaker that universities declining to fly that flag on campus, for obvious reasons of sheer decency, should have their tax breaks withheld as punishment. It was defeated, but only by a narrow margin.
What’s it going to take, Mississippi? You want to wait until your Dylann Roof shows up for you to understand that that banner stands for white supremacy and hate? Take a look at New Orleans and learn. This is no time for the usual history-honouring claptrap. Change your damn flag now.