The Monument to White Power that Still Stands in New Orleans
tags: Confederate Monuments
"The Central Theme of Southern History," according to the Southern historian U. B. Phillips in a much-quoted article by that title, has been "a common resolve indomitably maintained — that it shall be and remain a white man's country." Not only in the South but all across America, the landscape commemorates this mentality still, commemorating white racists while obliterating the memory of Americans who fought against white supremacy.
In 1891 at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans, where the business district meets the Mississippi River, the white civic leadership of New Orleans erected the most overt monument to white supremacy in the United States. The monument celebrates the White League in what it called "The Battle of Liberty Place." Its checkered history offers something of a barometer showing the relative power of blacks and whites in this part of America and the importance each group places on control of the landscape.
The monument celebrates a chilling battle: an armed insurrection against the city and state governments that took place in 1874. During Reconstruction, a biracial Republican coalition had won election to most state and city offices. The White League, composed of white New Orleans Democrats, sought to replace those officials with their own men. They had planned their takeover at the elite Boston Club. Their platform made their objective clear: "Having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to the men of our race . . . to unite with us . . . in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man's government in the city and the State."
On the morning of September 14, 1874, thousands of white Democrats gathered at a statue of Henry Clay then located in the Canal Street median at St. Charles Street. After incendiary speeches, at four in the afternoon about 8400 whites attacked 3000 black members of the state militia, 500 mostly white members of the Metropolitan Police, and 100 other local police officers, all under the command of Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet had been a Confederate general; indeed, he was Lee's senior corps commander at Gettysburg. After the war, he came to believe, in accord with the 14th and 15th amendments, that African Americans should have full rights as citizens, including voting rights.
In fifteen minutes, the White Leaguers routed Longstreet's forces, capturing Longstreet. Eleven Metropolitans and their allies were killed and 60 wounded. 21 White Leaguers were killed, including two bystanders, and 19 were wounded. White League officials then took charge of all state offices in New Orleans and appealed to President Ulysses Grant for recognition.
Engraving in Harper's Weekly, October, 1874
Grant refused to recognize the new group, and a few days later, Federal troops restored the Republican governor to office. The League had no choice but to vacate the government posts they had seized. However, the "Battle of Liberty Place" was an important event that presaged the end of Reconstruction, which white Democrats accomplished in 1876-77 using similarly violent methods.
In 1882, with the city now under white Democratic control, the median strip at the foot of Canal Street was renamed "Liberty Place." The Orwellian name celebrates the liberty to suppress black voting that racist whites had finally seized in 1877. The City Council passed an ordinance to erect a monument there commemorating the events of September 14, 1874, and for several years on September 14 white supremacists paraded through the streets to the site where the White League had met. But crowds dwindled as the event receded in memory, and no monument was erected.
In 1891, another "racial crisis" hit New Orleans. Nineteen Italian immigrants, accused of the 1890 Mafia-style slaying of the police chief, were acquitted. White League veterans called for a mass meeting, and on March 14 a huge crowd gathered again at the Clay monument on Canal Street. "Not since the 14th day of September 1874 have we seen such a determined looking set of men assembled around this statue," shouted a White League descendant. "Then you assembled to assert your manhood. I want to know whether or not you will assert your manhood on the 14th day of March." The mob responded by marching on the city jail and shooting nine of the prisoners, dragging two others outside, and hanging them in view of the crowd. This mass lynching caused an international incident that did not end until the United States government paid Italy an indemnity of about $25,000. It also gave a boost to the movement to erect a monument at "Liberty Place."
That year an obelisk went up, supported by a shaft and four columns, inscribed with the names of sixteen White Leaguers killed in the battle and the date, September 14, 1874. Perhaps no additional text appeared because white Democrats felt they had better mute any overt expression of white supremacy. African Americans were still voting, and Democrats were still wary in 1891 of upsetting Northern Republicans, who had recently almost passed a strong voting rights bill.
In 1932, in a reflection of the further deterioration of black rights, the monument acquired an overtly racist text. By then, few African Americans could vote, and the United States government was clearly not going to do anything to help them, so the white supremacist regime was now more secure than in 1891, when the monument had been erected. Upper-class white citizens of New Orleans faced a new threat, however: Huey Long seemed to be putting together a coalition of white farmers and workers, including also those blacks who could vote. Again, the New Orleans elite appealed to white supremacy to ward off the threat. A commission of white citizens appointed by the Mayor added the following inscription to the White League monument:
[Democrats] McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).
United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.
As segregation began to come under attack after World War II, the monument was again used as a symbol of intolerance. Disgusted by civil rights plank in the Democratic platform and by President Harry Truman's desegregation of the armed forces, in 1948 racist Democrats ran "Dixiecrats" Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President and Fielding Wright of Mississippi for Vice President. Their supporters rallied at the monument, and they carried the state. After the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in 1954, the monument was invoked to remind white Louisianans of what allegedly took place during Reconstruction, the last time the federal government "meddled" in Southern affairs. White supremacists rallied repeatedly at the monument in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 1974 centennial of the "Battle of Liberty Place," however, African Americans again were voting in New Orleans, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. New Orleans businessmen even hosted the national NAACP meeting that year. Now the city government felt compelled to add a "counter-marker" next to the monument, which said:
Although the "Battle of Liberty Place" and this monument are important parts of New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.
Over the 1932 white supremacy language, the city cemented marble slabs.
When I saw the monument in April, 1988, however, it was clear that the continuing battle of Liberty Place was far from resolved and the "philosophy and beliefs" of New Orleans was still in dispute. White supremacists had removed the marble slabs, and the 1932 inscriptions showed through the thin cement. African Americans had covered its phrases with spray paint: "Black Power" and "Fuck You White People."
A year later, major street construction on Canal Street gave New Orleans an excuse to remove the obelisk "for safe keeping." For two years it languished in a warehouse. Then a New Orleans druggist filed suit to force it back up on the landscape. His lawsuit led to interesting debates. Supporters of the monument claimed they weren't racist, they were merely good historians, while its detractors were "revisionists," trying to erase history. The monument's opponents pointed out that knowing about the incident was different from celebrating it. Some politicians proposed what they termed a compromise: instead of re-erecting the obelisk at its prominent place at the foot of Canal Street, place it in a "more appropriate location" in a white residential neighborhood — implying that different histories are appropriate for different races and white supremacy memorials are OK in white areas.
In February, 1993, the city finally re-erected the monument at the foot of Iberville Street, only a block from the old location but out of the way, behind a parking garage. First workers obliterated the 1932 lettering. A new inscription honored those "on both sides of the conflict" and concluded vaguely, "A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.” Fifty supporters of the obelisk attended the rededication ceremony in March, 1993, while almost as many protesters demonstrated against it. Speakers, including former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, strained to be heard over demonstrators' shouts and spirituals. A local reporter recorded the event:
Organizers began the ceremony . . . by waving a Confederate flag alongside American and Louisiana flags. That led to shouts of "Down with white supremacy!" from protesters, who tried to push their way to the monument, but were held back by eight police officers.
In the melee, officers put protester Avery Alexander in a chokehold, even though he was a state representative and also 82 years old. Afterward, Duke said, "We may be a minority in this city, but I tell you, we still have rights." Alexander called the monument "a badge of slavery" and said "it should be removed." In all, one person attending the ceremony and four people protesting it were arrested.
Despite the tranquil new text, the controversy continued. The druggist sued to remove the new wording. Vandals have torn out two of the four columns that, along with a central shaft, support the obelisk. In retaliation, a man representing the "Monument Preservation Army" put white paint on a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., in February, 1993. He said he would continue to deface black monuments "until they leave ours alone." Soon after that, African Americans asked the city to remove the White League monument, saying it met the criteria for a "public nuisance." Later that year, the city's Advisory Committee on Human Relations held hearings and found that it did meet those criteria, since it:
— honors those who took part in killing city or state public employees;
— suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group;
— praises actions wrongfully taken to promote ethnic, religious, or racial supremacy of one group over another;
— has been or may become the site of violent demonstrations that threaten life or property; [and]
— will present an unjustifiable expense to maintain or secure.
David Duke, self-professed admirer of Adolf Hitler, enlivened one hearing by protesting that the city was using "Nazi tactics" to remove the monument.
Later that summer the city council ordered the monument removed to a museum. No major museum volunteered to house it, however, and more legal battles loomed immediately. The obelisk still stands at the foot of Iberville Street.
However, the second battle of Liberty Place, the battle over the monument, is far from over. On September 2, 2015, the Vieux Carre Commission, which controls aesthetics in the historic French Quarter, voted 5-1 to remove the obelisk The New Orleans City Council must still approve the removal, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called for it to go, along with statues of Confederate leaders.
Since it is one of the few monuments to the Nadir of Race Relations on our landscape, as well as one of the few sites that mentions Reconstruction, I hope it will wind up on display in a museum. It is also the most overt monument to white supremacy in the United States – and that’s saying a lot! The nearby Louisiana State Historical Museum has shown an increasing willingness to face the state’s white supremacist past, so it would be a likely location.
 It should; the public nuisance ordinance had been written with the monument specifically in mind.
 Lawrence Powell, "A Concrete Symbol," Southern Exposure, Spring, 1990, 41; John Wilds, Charles Dufour, and Walter Cowan, LA Yesterday and Today (Baton Rouge: LA State UP, 1996), 57-58, 185-89; Herbert Aptheker, Afro-American History: The Modern Era (NY: Citadel, 1971), 18; ----, "Anniversary of Battle Ending Carpetbag Reign to Be Marked Wednesday," New Orleans Times- Picayune, 9/11/32; Judith K. Schafer, "The Battle of Liberty Place," Cultural Vistas, v. 5 #1 (Spring, 1994), 9-17; Lawrence Powell, "A Concrete Symbol," Southern Exposure, Spring, 1990, 41; Edward J. Cocke, Monumental New Orleans (Jefferson, LA: Hope Publications, 1974), 16-7; Bruce Eggler, "Judge Lets Liberty Statue Gather Dust in City Storage," Times-Picayune, 2/20/92; Kevin Bell, "Council Takes Step Against Monument," Times-Picayune, 4/16/93; Michael Perlstein, "5 Arrested at Monument Ceremony," Times-Picayune, 3/8/93; Eggler, "Liberty Statue is Replaced," Times-Picayune, 2/11/93; ---, "Rev. King State Spray-Painted White," Times-Picayune, 3/22/93; Susan Finch, "Duke Blasts 'Nazi' Tactics to Remove Monument," Times-Picayune, 6/16/93; Finch, "Liberty: Store Monument, Panel Says," Times-Picayune, 7/1/93; Cain Burdeau, “French Quarter Agency Backs Removal of White League Monument,” ABC News, abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/french-quarter-agency-backs-removal-white-league-monument-33502248.
Copyright James W. Loewen
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