Louisiana lawmakers vote to make it harder to remove Confederate monuments

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“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen done in this building.”

Confederate monument supporters wait for protesters to arrive at the statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans. CREDIT: Aviva Shen

They’ve lost in state, federal, and civil court. Two New Orleans statues have already been removed. But now, Confederate monument champions are escalating their appeals to the more conservative state government to intervene.

On Monday, the Louisiana House passed a bill that would require an election before any war memorial is removed or even altered. The legislation was approved by a House committee earlier this month, after the first Confederate monument in New Orleans came down.

The fraught debate over the bill quickly turned to its authors’ conception of Civil War history, or the “War Between the States,” as the bill calls it. After being questioned by Rep. Sam Jones (D), Rep. Thomas Carmody (R) said he did not believe slavery was the reason for the Civil War, and that the South had a legal right to secede from the Union.

Monument supporter and opponents debate racism and history at Lee Circle. CREDIT: Aviva Shen

The proposed law has implications beyond the current firestorm. Any time a city wants to re-dedicate a street or park or school named after virtually any veteran of any war, they would be required to hold an election seeking permission.

The Monumental Task Force, which bills itself as an “art restoration service” on Facebook, quickly rallied behind the legislation after its sound defeat in court.

The bill’s language is exceptionally broad. It stipulates that “no public memorial, including any structure, plaque, statue, monument, school, street, bridge, building, park, or area, that has been dedicated in memory of or named for any historical military figure, historical military event, military organization, or military unit shall be altered, removed, relocated, destroyed, rededicated, or renamed.”

That could throw a big wrench into basic infrastructure decisions. Demolishing an old bridge or even just re-surfacing a street named after anyone who has served in the military could require an election, multiplying costs to taxpayers. Louisiana is crisscrossed with roads and parks bearing Confederates’ names.

The history behind New Orleans’ long fight to remove its Confederate monuments

Member after member of the legislature’s black caucus called out the bill’s racist underpinnings in emotional floor speeches. Many of them mentioned they were receiving emails full of racist vitriol because of the legislation.

“We talk about history but we are ignoring a very significant part of my history,” said Rep. Ted James (D), noting that some of his white colleagues’ ancestors raped his ancestors. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen done in this building…I’m asking that you not just stand with my ancestors but remember that many of us are linked by the same blood.”

Rep. Katrina Jackson (D) pointed out that African Americans are the minority in many smaller cities in Louisiana, which puts them at a disadvantage in any popular vote to remove monuments to white supremacy or slavery.

“Why are we classifying monuments to those who promoted slavery as military monuments?” she asked.

Carmody repeatedly dodged questions asking him whether he supported monuments to white supremacy.

Though no one besides Carmody stood to defend the bill, it passed 65–31. It now goes to the state Senate.

The entire black caucus of the House reportedly walked out in protest of the vote.

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The fight is moot in New Orleans, which plans to remove two final Confederate monuments in the coming weeks. But New Orleans’ drama has inspired efforts in other parts of the state that could be affected by the legislation.

A petition has picked up steam to remove a Confederate memorial from the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport, the holdout capital of the Confederacy after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. The petition organizers point out that the federal court rulings affirming New Orleans’ right to remove their monuments should also protect Shreveport.

Caddo Parish Courthouse’s Confederate memorial. CREDIT: Flickr/ShreveportBossier

The memorial’s location is meant to mark the last place the Confederate flag was lowered. But its position on courthouse grounds underscores an uneasy link between the slavery era and today’s criminal justice system.

Like New Orleans, Shreveport is a majority-black city. Until it elected its first black district attorney in 2016, Caddo Parish’s courthouse churned out more death sentences than most others in the country. A 2015 report revealed the parish also had a habit of eliminating qualified black jurors without giving a reason to disqualify them.

The Caddo Parish Commission is holding public hearings over the month of May. Pro-monument groups are encouraging their members to turn out. But as the debate is playing out, the state’s vote may now stop it in its tracks.

Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.

Louisiana lawmakers vote to make it harder to remove Confederate monuments was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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