When is Cantrell going to stop cuddling with the pro-monument crowd?

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The statue-less pedestal at Lee Circle has a certain eloquence and should be left that way, the columnist argues.

As a retired military officer I have found it painful to watch Mayor Latoya Cantrell continue to make Leadership 101 mistakes when it comes to deciding the future of the Confederate monuments that, in 2017, were removed from prominent locations in New Orleans.

On Dec. 17, 2015, the day the City Council voted to remove the monuments, Cantrell, then a council member, gave a speech that must have been music to the ears of the pro-monument crowd, chastising then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu for bringing the issue to light. Amazingly, within the same hour she joined the majority of the council in voting for removal.

In early 2018, within a few months of being elected mayor, Cantrell empowered a secretive working group of Confederate monument supporters to decide the future location of the warehoused monuments. One of her spokesmen stated, “She believes that the future of the former monuments belongs in the hands of those who care about them.”

It’s highly likely that the only reason the mayor didn’t go through with the group’s relocation plan, moving them to another prominent location, was the exposure she received in an article by Kevin Litten published in The Times-Picayune. The article exposed Cantrell’s willingness to placate the side of the argument endorsed by some of the most moneyed and powerful people in the city — the side she voted against as a City Council member.

Almost a year later we are now learning that Cantrell is apparently holding meetings with Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser to decide the future of the monuments. This is the same Billy Nungesser who pleaded for President Trump to intervene and keep the monuments in place, putting himself squarely on the side of those who couldn’t win the argument on its merits, the side that resorted to shenanigans like lawsuits, death threats, and threats to businesses. 

Let’s not forget that death threats from Confederate monument supporters turned a $200,000 monument removal job into one that cost millions due to security requirements. And let’s not forget that Confederate monument supporters ludicrously blamed then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu for the high cost. And let’s not forget that neither Nungesser, nor any member of Cantrell’s “working group,” ever publicly denounced the death threats.

I spoke at three of the four public hearings in New Orleans supporting monument removal. I know a little about the Confederacy. Three of my four grandparents were descendants of Confederates. But you don’t have to be eligible for a Sons of Confederate Veterans membership to know that the Southern states seceded and the Confederacy was formed over the desire to continue slavery. You can read what the original secessionist states wrote themselves in documents known as the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.

Mississippi may have been the most direct: “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union ...”

Over the course of the monument issue in New Orleans I corresponded and spoke with several prominent historians including Col. Ty Seidule, head of the Department of History at West Point. Seidule, a Southerner, has been willing to confront the truth about the Confederacy and secession.  In an online video he stated, “Many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the Southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. There has to be another reason, we are told. Well there isn’t. The evidence is clear, and overwhelming. Slavery was, by a wide margin, the single most important cause of the Civil War.”

So if we know that the Confederacy was formed over the desire to continue slavery, how can we not understand that African Americans may be a little less than enamored of monuments to leaders of the effort to keep their ancestors in bondage?

The roots of the Lost Cause — “Slavery wasn’t that bad.” “The war was not about slavery.” — run deep in New Orleans. In 2014 shortly after moving here, my daughter, then in the fourth grade, encountered the following question on a social studies test: “True or False, All slave owners were cruel?” My daughter answered “true” and was marked down for giving an “incorrect” answer.

I don’t think Landrieu gets enough credit for the way he handled the Confederate monument issue during his tenure. Rather than removing monuments and flags without debate, as did some cities and states, Landrieu opened up a discussion. As painful as that discussion was, New Orleanians had the opportunity to flush away the Lost Cause nonsense and learn the truth about slavery and the crimes of the Confederacy. New Orleans not only ended the century-old lie told by our Confederate monuments, we provided the facts and the truth along the way.

Clearly some folks in Louisiana aren’t interested in the facts associated with slavery and the Confederacy. Which gets us back to Cantrell, an official Nungesser confidently cites as an ally in his plan to restore the monuments to public view. Aside from Cantrell’s deference to power and money among some in the pro-monument faction, it’s a safe bet that she is aware of a 2016 LSU poll that showed 88 per cent of whites in Louisiana were against removal of the Confederate monuments.

Had we conducted a poll about ending slavery in 1860, or ending segregation in 1960, I wonder if the results would have been substantially different.

LaToya Cantrell has been attempting to placate both sides on this issue. And she’s been doing it right from the beginning. In my opinion, that makes her more a politician than a leader. There are times when a leader has to make a choice, when there is a right side and a wrong side.

The Confederate monument issue is one of those times. Mayor Cantrell needs to learn the difference between leading and placating, between being a leader and being a politician. She has an opportunity to join Landrieu on the right side of history by ensuring that the monuments are never returned to a setting of honor. Unfortunately, she appears to be well on her way to proving that she isn’t up to the task. Or maybe she believes that all slave owners weren’t cruel?

Though it appears that Cantrell is primarily interested in the opinions of those on one side of this issue, I’ll offer her an alternative:

The Confederate monuments removed from this city in 2017 should never reside anywhere but in the city of New Orleans. They have a place in the history of this city and they have a story to tell; just not the lie they told for more than a century — the lie that leaders of the effort to continue slavery in this country were noble men deserving of a place of honor.

All four of these monuments should be grouped in a single location, at ground level, no pedestals. They should be surrounded on four sides with duplicate bronze plaques that tell the story of why they were put up and exactly why we took them down. We should be in no hurry to place another monument on top of the pedestal at Lee Circle. Bereft of its Confederate idol, it eloquently tells a story right now: that a stain was removed and a skewed version of history corrected.

Lt. Col. Westmoreland (Ret.)

Richard Westmoreland served as an F/A-18 pilot in the Marine Corps. He flew more than 100 missions in two conflicts earning five Air Medals. He moved to New Orleans in 2014 where he continues to work as an aviation professional.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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