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..