NEW ORLEANS — THE re-erection of a 100-year-old monument that commemorates a bloody battle in this city during the painful years after the Civil War is sparking angry disputes.
The Liberty Monument - a 20-foot-tall granite obelisk that recalls a violent confrontation in New Orleans between the Reconstruction administration and several hundred white residents, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers - has long been a subject of controversy among civil rights and Civil War enthusiasts here.
Originally erected in 1891, the monument has become a focal point of racial attitudes, not only because it honors the fighters of the White League - a militaristic group that many historians believe operated similarly to the Ku Klux Klan - but also because for years a plaque on the monument stated that the presidential election of 1876, which effectively ended Reconstruction, "recognized white supremacy and gave us our state."
After the monument was dismantled and sent to a warehouse in 1989, ostensibly to permit street repairs around its downtown site, a local pharmacist successfully sued in federal court to force the city to re-erect the obelisk. The court's decision won the support of many national and local preservationists, who say that whatever the racial implications of the monument might be, it is a part of history and should not be permanently removed.
"You just have a bunch of people in this town who want to play with history," says Hope Labrano, a spokesperson for the Friends of the Liberty Monument, a group that applauded the city's decision to put the monument back up (in a different location). "This is a monument that celebrates the people of this city who fought off a government that was imposed on them. That's all it is, even though these critics keep bringing up the racial issue."
Whether or not race originally was a factor in the dispute, it became one after former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke appeared at the rededication ceremonies for the monument in early March.
"We may be a minority in this city," Mr. Duke said of New Orleans, which is more than 65 percent black, "but we still have rights. We still have the right to assemble. And this ceremony is dedicated to those who died to protect those rights."
"It was good to see ol' David Duke there at the Liberty Monument, because he and the people who support that thing are one and the same," says the Rev. Avery Alexander, a long-time civil rights activist who is also a state representative. "These are people who live in another century.... They want to go back to a time when blacks truly were an oppressed people, and both Duke and this monument give them hope."
Although Duke's political star in Louisiana has been in decline, the Liberty Monument's star has been ascending owing to the support it has received from various civic and preservation groups.
"We don't get involved in politics much, but when it comes to tearing down a monument that has been standing for more than a century in this city, we decided we just had to get involved," says Richard Bell, president of the Louisiana Historical Society. "You can't go around destroying statues and monuments because of the political atmosphere of the day. Where would it end?"
Liberty Monument supporters, some of whom are descendants of the men who fought in what is known as the "Battle of Liberty Place," say an understanding of what Reconstruction rule in New Orleans was like is essential to appreciate the monument.
This view of history puts the era in a harsh light: Not only were white citizens of New Orleans under the rule of the Yankees, and even of some blacks who were formerly slaves, but they also labored under a heavy property-tax load that caused many whites to lose their property.
The swift evaporation of financial security, coupled with the daily indignity of being bossed around by the enemy victors from the war, motivated talks of rebellion. With a national recession lending fuel to the fire, the White League decided to take a stand in September 1874.
Thousands of whites marched to downtown New Orleans, where they overpowered the state militia and took control of state offices. But President Ulysses S. Grant sent in a far larger federal militia, backed by a squadron of six warships anchored at the Port of New Orleans, and the White Leaguers surrendered.
The struggle resulted in 27 deaths and more than 100 injuries, mostly during the initial battle. But it could be said that the White League ultimately won: In 1876 Reconstruction was ended by a deal to garner Southern electoral votes for Rutherford B. Hayes, who won that year's presidential election despite trailing in the popular vote.
Most historians agree that the White League was a racist organization. Eric Foner, in his award-winning 1988 book, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution," says that the White League was "openly dedicated to the violent restoration of white supremacy."
In "Creole New Orleans," published last year, Joseph Logsdon, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, notes that white Louisianians "in desperate frustration banded together in 1874 to form the White League for the reestablishment of white supremacy, with predictable consequences of violence."
But other scholars, such as Tulane University history Prof. Judith Schaefer, have argued that the "Battle of Liberty Place" needs to be put into historical perspective. For many older white New Orleanians, Dr. Schaefer said at a recent meeting of the Louisiana Historical Society, the monument is a structure of inspiration because it honors citizens who banded together to fight against what was viewed as a totalitarian rule. She also acknowledged, however, that the monument sparks a different reaction amo ng black residents. "Some compromise must be reached," Schaefer said, pointing out that the plaque lauding white supremacy has been removed.
But for 82-year-old activist Alexander, who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and was arrested for disrupting the monument's rededication ceremonies, the only compromise possible is one that results in the disappearance of the monument.
"It's like the Confederate flag," he says of the monument. "It's something that people who want to see a return to the old days, a return to the Confederacy, can rally around. But every time they do, they are reminding us of the way things once were, of their love for those old, old days."
City officials, who delayed re-erecting the monument for more than a year, say that, for now, the monument is here to stay, despite the protests. "The mayor sympathizes very much with those who are against it," says Jinx Broussard, a spokesman for Mayor Sidney Barthelemy (D). "But his hands are tied. We are under court order to keep it up."
But Mr. Broussard says the civil rights activists should find comfort in the new spot selected for the monument: a small patch of land near the Mississippi River, removed from the city center.
"At least we got it somewhat out of view," Broussard says. "The problem now is living with it, and that's not going to be easy for a lot of people here."