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In the spring of 2017, New Orleans finally removed four of its most racist monuments, including one dedicated to a white supremacist mob.
The monument that got the most media attention—that giant, larger-than-life statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee—came down last. The city installed that statue in 1884, fourteen years after Robert E.’s death, and held a big celebration attended by thousands of people when they first unveiled it. Two other stalwarts of the Confederacy attended its gala unveiling: General P.G.T. Beauregard, the officer whose troops fired the first shots of the American Civil War; and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
When the City removed Lee’s statue, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, told the New York Times:
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. – “From Lofty Perch, New Orleans Monument to Confederacy Comes Down,” Campbell Robertson, May 19, 2017.
New Orleans took down the prominent Beauregard and Davis statues before they dismantled Lee’s, but the decommissioning of the very first monument probably caused the most public furor. Ironically called the “Liberty Monument,” it commemorated an 1874 insurrection by a white supremacist militia against the multiracial Reconstruction government in New Orleans. The inscription on that monument said:
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.
You can easily look up the history of that ugly post-Civil War, Jim Crow era in the American South by searching for “the battle of Liberty place” or “the battle of Canal Street.” Here’s the short version: The “White League,” an armed mob that violently opposed the abolition of slaves, did everything it could to suppress the black vote and force out legitimately-elected officeholders who were sympathetic to recently-freed African-American slaves. In 1874, 5,000 members of the White League fought a deadly war with city police in the streets of New Orleans to take over the state offices and force out the so-called “usurpers”—two candidates, one of them black, who had been legally elected by newly-enfranchised black voters.
You might think, in this more enlightened age, that no one would oppose the removal of such blatantly racist public memorials—but instead, the removals generated serious, concerted and violent opposition. Shouting matches, angry confrontations and fist-fights broke out among supporters of removal and their determined opponents. Confederate sympathizers, some state lawmakers, self-declared white supremacists and “alt-right” white power advocates tried to stop the monument removals with calls to respect their “heritage,” backed up by loud marches, burning torches reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan rallies and even death threats against the contractors tasked with removing the monuments. In fact, the crews who took the monuments down had to wear bulletproof vests and masks to hide their identities.
One white Mississippi state representative said publicly on Facebook that elected officials in New Orleans deserved to be “lynched” for arranging to have the monuments removed.
If you have any doubts about the continuing existence of bigotry, prejudice and outright racism in contemporary civilization, “Removal Spring” in New Orleans should settle the issue:
One of the great reasons of separation is colour. Look how this prejudice has power in America, for instance. See how they hate one another! Animals do not quarrel because of their colour! Surely man who is so much higher in creation, should not be lower than the animals. Think over this. What ignorance exists! White doves do not quarrel with blue doves because of their colour, but white men fight with dark-coloured men. This racial prejudice is the worst of all. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 55.
The tensions, divisions, and injustices that currently beset America are symptoms of a longstanding illness. The nation is afflicted with a deep spiritual disorder, manifest in rampant materialism, widespread moral decay, and a deeply ingrained racial prejudice. As a result, millions of our fellow Americans, subject to systemic injustices in many facets of life, are prevented from making their full contributions to society and of partaking fully in its benefits. No one is immune to this disorder―we are all members of this society and to some degree suffer the effects of its maladies. – The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, February 25, 2017.
So in this series of essays, let’s examine that deep spiritual disorder, which the New Orleans monument removals so clearly and starkly demonstrate. Let’s look at the challenges of racism, not only in the United States but across the entire world, and see what the Baha’i teachings prescribe for attacking, alleviating and ultimately eradicating the ingrained racial prejudice and injustice that still plagues and cripples our cultures today.