In New Orleans last month, four statues commemorating Confederate loyalists were removed from public viewing. Their removal didn’t come out of thin air, or because sudden moral outrage moved the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, to act swiftly. This iteration of the fight began in 2014, when organizers with a group called Take ’Em Down NOLA distributed a petition to get the monuments taken down at an anti–police brutality rally. The fight snowballed into a movement that would persuade the city’s mayor and City Council to agree to remove four of the city’s monuments celebrating the Confederacy: statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and one dedicated to those who opposed Reconstruction. That movement—a collection of council members and outside agitators, young and old—created a rare alchemy where true progress was made.
There is no doubt that Take ’Em Down NOLA, and its black leadership in particular, played a crucial role in this victory. But just as people involved in all successful movements can testify, change takes institutional buy-in as well, even if it only exists because of the tireless work of activists working on the outside. The removal of the four monuments that reminded the Crescent City’s black residents who was honored in the memory of the Civil War, was a joint effort, one that worked in New Orleans and can be replicated elsewhere. Momentum from grassroots organizing by residents can become so strong it cannot be ignored, forcing local government to listen to its constituents and make change, even at some political cost—because it is the right and just thing to do.
His accent is unquestionably New Orleanian, but if you listen closely enough, you can hear the slight traces of his Brooklyn roots. Michael “Quess?” Moore, one of the leaders of Take ’Em Down NOLA, moved to New Orleans from New York City when he was 12 years old. But it wasn’t until he was much older that he realized the psychological impact of being bombarded by visual salutes to chattel slavery. About seven years ago, when Moore sat in on a lecture at the New Orleans Public Library with local black historians Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber, he realized just how endemic racism was to his city. The historians presented to their audience a grid of the city showing that half of the streets were named after slave owners, and “unapologetic white supremacists,” as Moore put it. “I realized in that moment that everything I had experienced, everything every black person experienced, was absolutely intentional.” Moore says he was “enraged” and “excited,” and he got to work.
In early 2014, Moore, along with several other local organizers, held their first action as members of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), a nationwide youth civil-rights organization, in Lee Circle (that’s as in Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who kidnapped free black Americans and sent them back into slavery). Meeting up at Lee Circle, Moore told me, was not just a matter of convenience, it was also strategic and symbolic. Yes, the group of mostly black New Orleans natives were marching against police brutality, but they were were also locating the protest in a public space named after the most notoriously racist figure in American history.
In November of 2014, Moore circulated a petition at a protest to take down the statue at Lee Circle, the very place where he had convened with BYP 100 just months beforehand. That petition planted the seed for Take ’Em Down NOLA..
Take ’Em Down didn’t launch the first offensive against the monuments, Moore is careful to tell me. In 1993, an 82-year-old state senator was carried off by police in a chokehold after he protested at a rally where David Duke and other white supremacists were defending a monument honoring a group of insurgents who tried to overthrow the Reconstruction government. Also in the early ’90s, the New Orleans historian who became Moore’s fellow organizer, Malcolm Suber, was part of a group that got the Orleans Parish school district to change at least 20 of its schools’ names from slave-holders and Confederate generals to ones more appropriate for the majority black community it serves.
By Independence Day 2015, Take ’Em Down, which grew out of BYP100, had cemented itself as the loudest and most aggressive voice advocating for the statues’ removal.
As the grassroots group continued to hold more protests, canvass the city’s black communities, hold public forums, and receive media coverage, it garnered the attention of local government officials—in particular, that of New Orleans Councilmember Jason Williams. “Anything that has really ever happened in our country or others, has always had people working outside of government to push dynamic change,” Williams told me. “Government is traditionally and organically slow to move and it sticks with status quo.” Encouraged by the movement that was already taking place, and conversations between his office and Moore, Williams became involved. The issue didn’t only impact his constituency; it was a personal one. “Long before I was on the council, we would pass by these monuments and my son would say, “I thought they lost the war.” It was always gave Williams pause. “I am a black man before I am a lawyer or councilman.” The monuments were haunting generations after him, his son among them.
Williams convened two important council meetings on the issue. The first took place in July 2015 and the second was December 2015, the day of the vote. “The two meetings I held had people on both sides of the issue in attendance,” he says. “Each side was encouraged, and did, give reasons for or against taking down the monuments, so that [City Council] could decide.” Williams said the both meetings had the biggest turnout of any he’d held as Councilman. Moore called Williams’s office “relatively open” and cooperative. In August of 2016, Williams joined a die-in in which Take ’Em Down blocked four blocks of traffic. Says Moore, “Jason happened to be there and so he joined the circle of folks holding that space on the block.”
It took six months after Mayor Landrieu called for the monuments’ removal for the City Council to hold the vote—that was over a year since Take ’Em Down began its efforts. “The mayor and the City Council certainly deserve credit for taking principled stands. Politically, they did the right thing at the right time,” said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyala University and a legal adviser for Take ’Em Down NOLA. “However, you cannot overestimate the critical importance of the New Orleans civil-rights community, which has been in this fight for decades.” The Urban League of Louisiana became publicly involved at the City Council meeting on the day of the council’s vote when Rashida Govan, a consultant with the organization, gave testimony. “I understood that these men who are represented in these monuments are villains to some, but loved ones to others and that the people of the confederacy are fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, etc. for their loved ones, their role in history is a source of pride,” Govan wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. “Nonetheless, these men and their role in history mean something else to those who they oppressed. They were the architects of systems of oppression that are responsible for present day disparities impacting Black and Brown people in New Orleans.”
Govan told The Nation that the Urban League has played a role similar to Take ’Em Down NOLA, but has also taken the more institutional route. Sometimes, Govan said, the Urban League chooses to do organizing outside the political system, but this time, she said, it chose to work within it. “Some of its work was testifying at the City Council meeting, behind the scenes conversations with decision makers to influence them to support the removal of the monuments,” she explains. The group also worked with others to thwart a federal lawsuit filed by opponents of the monument and submitted an amicus brief on the issue.
It would take another year and five months for the monuments to come down—in the middle of the night, like the city was absconding from its past. It was for protection, Landrieu explained; contractors hired to take down the statues claimed their lives were being threatened.
On the final evening, the night when the last agreed-upon statue came down, Landrieu gave an impassioned speech about the significance of the evening. “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past,” he said at a press conference. “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.” Elected officials and civil-rights groups were invited, but Take ’Em Down NOLA was left off the list.
“We weren’t invited we didn’t know about it,” Moore said. “Basically it was typical white-savior cooptation of the narrative,” he continued. But Take ’Em down held a protest before Landrieu’s press conference and, Moore says, there were over 1,000 people gathered. “It was the public moment we deserved.”
Moore isn’t too concerned about getting snubbed for the mayor’s speech. “Our gripe is not about being embraced by Mitch [Landrieu] and being buddy-buddy with City Council. You understand the nature of our work of agitators.” Rejecting white supremacy, he says, involves being on the outside of institutions and government. “We are the front line between politicians and the people,” he said, adding that what’s vital is not getting the “spotlight from politicians.” Moore’s only concern about not getting credit or visibility was that it would not inspire other Southern cities, other potential black organizers. So many New Orleanian black Americans, Moore says, live with a “Stockholm syndrome,” fearing state-sanctioned violence that has resulted in passivity. Though, in canvassing black communities, Moore found that support to take down the monuments was nearly universal, when it came to getting a lot of black New Orleanians in the streets and involved in the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts of the movement and even protests, he sensed a fair amount of fear about shaking up the status quo. Over the course of its year of activism, the group did swell in membership, and even though its leadership was always black, many of its adherents were white.
Now that four statues have come down, there is are two questions left lingering for all those involved in the debate. First: What to do with the statues? “Dump ’em in the trash,” said Moore. “Break ’em into pieces and shore up the ever dwindling wetlands. Get creative.” Govan proposed that the statues go in a museum, with a curated narration putting giving context for who these Confederates were. Mayor Landrieu’s office told The Nation that the city is still in the process of figuring out what to do with the statues. For Williams, deciding what to do with the statues is less important than what to do with the space they occupied. “I think what’s more important is what to do with these blank slates, tainted slates,” he says, suggesting the community come together and figure out what to put there next. Moore points out that “You’ve got monuments of people who don’t deserve it, but you’ve got no monuments who do deserve it.”
The second question weighs much more heavily: What to do from here? “As an elected we have to be judged on real differences we can make on peoples lives and they have to be institutionalized,” says Williams. “Symbols are temporary. Long lasting changes in institutions are where the rubber meets the road.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Take ’Em Down held a protest following the press conference given by Mayor Landrieu when the last statue was removed. In fact, the protest preceded the press conference. It also cited Councilmember LaToya Cantrell as an early supporter of Take ’Em Down’s aims. In fact, though she ultimately voted for the statues to be taken down, she was not a consistent supporter of their removal. The text has been corrected.