A federal appeals court has ruled that the city of New Orleans can take down three Confederate monuments that have stood in the city for more than a century.
In December 2015, the city council voted to remove four monuments, including statues of Confederate figures Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, immediately triggering backlash and death threats against the contractors hired to do the job. A lawsuit filed by three historic preservation organizations and a Sons of the Confederacy group sought to halt their removal, but the suit was overturned on Monday. A fourth monument, which commemorates a post-Civil War uprising against Louisiana's Reconstruction government in 1874 by the White League, a white supremacy group, is still tied up in unrelated legislation.
Today, fewer white Southerners than ever view the symbols and monuments of the losing side in the Civil War as a proud part of their ancestral heritage. Instead, the Confederate symbols such as the New Orleans monuments have gradually become embarrassing reminders of slavery and racial oppression in the region. As an increasing number of Confederate luminaries descend from their figurative and literal pedestals across the United States, many Southerners have also begun to examine their once-glorified past in a much more critical light.
This trend has accelerated in recent years, Christopher Huff, a history professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.
"The concern over the past few years regarding Confederate monuments has little to do with any interest in the Civil War itself and much more to do with the movement of racism from the fringes of American politics towards the mainstream," says Dr. Huff.
"The concern among many Americans that racial problems have not improved in important ways leads them to see monuments to the Confederacy as visual, physical symbols and reminders of these continuing problems," he says.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was moved to begin the process of removing these monuments in the wake of the 2015 Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Roof's veneration of the Confederate flag and his racist justification for the murders in a black church sparked nationwide protests and led to the removal of the "Stars and Bars" Confederate battle flag from South Carolina state grounds and other Confederate reminders across the country.
But Mayor Landrieu's choice to remove the monuments in New Orleans met with swift resistance. Plaintiffs in the case argued that the city of New Orleans did not own the land the monuments were built on and therefore did not have the authority to remove them. Ultimately, it was found that the land did, in fact, belong to the city.
The final ruling also took into consideration the city's promise it would not destroy the historic statues. The date for their removal has not yet been set.
"We accept the City's assurances that it will hire only qualified and highly skilled crane operators and riggers to relocate the monuments from their current positions and, further, that the monuments are merely to be relocated, not destroyed," reads the final ruling.
The statues will be removed from their current, prominent locations around the city and stored until a more appropriate place for their display can be found, but the groups that supported the monuments were "disappointed" with the ruling, and are considering asking for a rehearing of the case, according to a statement from the Monumental Task Committee, one of the four groups that oppose their removal.
The statement reads in part: "Despite this setback, the nonprofit organizations that filed the original suit will continue to argue that all the City's historic monuments and cultural sites should be preserved and protected, and that a more appropriate response to calls for the monuments' removal is a program to include explanatory plaques and markers to present these individuals in the context of their time."
That has been reflected by many who are concerned about the whitewashing of a prominent part of Southern history.
"It's important to note here that many white Southerners do resent what they view as an erasure of their history," writes Trent Brown, professor of American Studies at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in an email to the Monitor. "Few white Southerners openly defend racism, segregation, or second-class citizenship for black Southerners in ways that they did half a century ago. But they do view the removal or 'contextualization' of Confederate symbolism as an affront."
But Professor Brown also notes that the vast majority of African-Americans in the South have always rejected the values represented by Confederate symbols. Until the civil rights movement and black voter registration in the 1960s, however, they were unable to translate those feelings into cohesive political action.
Some defenders of the Confederate monuments have expressed concerns that removing them could delete important reminders about the South's racially divisive past. But Huff says that many of these monuments were built after the Civil War with the specific purpose of revising what the conflict was really about.
"A majority of them were erected during the late 19th century when Southerners were creating the 'Lost Cause' mythology – the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery but about honorable Southerners defending their homes and values against Northern aggression," says Huff. "This was a blatant attempt to change the historical reality of the war and create a memory of the conflict that was more palatable, if inaccurate. So, if anything is lost by taking monuments down, it's an understanding of the time in which they were erected, not of the events which they commemorate."
And for modern-day critics of the Confederate monuments, that's simply not a myth worth glorifying.
"It's become harder for white Southerners to defend symbols of the Confederacy because of their use – often literally – as rallying points for groups opposing black civil rights," says Brown.
"It's simply not credible now for white Southerners to say that Confederate symbols have nothing to do with race. Really, they always have," he says. "But what they have to do with race – a public commemoration of white identity that was based upon second-class black citizenship – has become hard to defend, especially when those memorials occupy public space."