NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Advocates for preserving statutes commemorating the heroes of the Confederacy sued the City of New Orleans last week, just hours after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a controversial ordinance that would have them removed.
Landrieu has declared the four prominently placed monuments to be a "nuisance" and plans to remove them using privately donated money.
But in a Dec. 17 lawsuit, the plaintiffs - the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Force Committee Inc. and Beauregard Camp No. 130, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans -- claim the city doesn't own the land under the monuments and that they are protected from removal by state and federal law.
The plaintiffs further claim the mayor's decision was influenced by a conversation he had with famed musician Wynton Marsalis, "whose opinion has inexplicably been afforded more weight than that of the residents of New Orleans."
Following a brief phone conference between U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier and the parties Friday, the city agreed to hold off on its plans for removal until a hearing over the matter before Barbier on January 14.
Last June, after a gunman killed nine and wounded three others in a predominately African-American church in Charleston, S.C., several communities throughout the South reconsidered the message sent by the prominent display of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag. Several states removed the flag from statehouse grounds and state-issued license plates.
Mayor Landrieu called for the removal of the Confederate memorials in New Orleans in the same spirit.
At the time, Landrieu also mentioned a 2014 conversation he had with Wynton Marsalis in which Marsalis advocated for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and renaming of Lee Circle, a widely traveled traffic circle in downtown New Orleans.
During a 60-day public input period that followed Landrieu's proposal, two city commissions called for the ultimate removal of four monuments associated with the Confederacy.
Among them, a 60-foot-tall marble column and statue dedicated to Gen. Robert E. Lee; a large statue of Louisiana born Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback; a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and an obelisk dedicated to white supremacists who wanted to overthrow a biracial New Orleans Reconstruction government.
The lawsuit said the city's effort to remove the monuments has undertones of discrimination, since numerous monuments meet the same criteria as the four in question and the city has simply "decided to 'pick and choose' which monuments to remove and which to let rest."
For instance, plaintiffs argue in the 51-page lawsuit, the City hasn't requested removal of the Andrew Jackson Equestrian Monument in Jackson Square, or the Buffalo Soldiers Monument in Audubon Park.
The lawsuit also argued the statues are historical artifacts to be preserved.
"Regardless of whether the Civil War era is regarded as a catastrophic mistake or a noble endeavor, it is undeniably a formative event in the history of Louisiana, and it is the source of much of the cultural heritage this city and state, including countless novels, short stories, plays, monuments, statues, films, stories, songs, legends and other expressions of cultural identity," plaintiffs said.
The City Council voted 6 to 1 last week to remove the monuments. Hours later, plaintiffs' lawsuit was filed. In it, plaintiffs argued "removal of a monument is justified" under the ordinance only if certain criteria are met, the first of which is if the monument "honors or fosters ideologies in conflict with the requirements of equal protection ... suggests the supremacy of one group over the other, or gives honor or praise to wrongful actions taken against citizens of New Orleans." This does not apply in this case, plaintiffs said, or if it did they wouldn't know, as that criteria is "poorly punctuated, overbroad, vague, and ambiguous."
The lawsuit is directed at Mayor Landrieu and at the Department of Transportation and its secretary who, plaintiffs claim, are tasked with preserving historic monuments.
Other reasons the monuments should not be removed according to the lawsuit are that the statues are protected under the National Register of Historic Places and by laws protecting statues dedicated to veterans, the plaintiffs claim.
The city had planned to store the removed statues in a warehouse until another plan for development of a park or museum site "where monuments can be put in a fuller context" can be developed.
A press release sent out following the City Council's vote last week said private donors were to pick up the tab for removal of the four chosen Confederate monuments. Costs are estimated to run around $170,000.
The lawsuit was filed by Franklin H. Jones III of McAlpine & Cozad in New Orleans; John B. Dunlap III of Dunlap Fiore in Baton Rouge; and James Logan of Logan Law Offices in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, Jones said his clients have instructed him to say nothing beyond the statements and arguments in their pleadings -- at least until after the Court's decision on our request for a preliminary injunction. "
Attorneys for the Mayor's Office did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment.
In a letter to the Times-Picayune last week, Wynton Marsalis sought to explain his position on the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument.
"Robert E. Lee betrayed the sacred oath to support and defend the Constitution and instead chose to lead an army intent on its violent overthrow - and he lost," Marsalis wrote. "The Civil War was a costly victory for democracy, but long after it had been decided, the backwards thinking leadership of this city erected monuments to Confederate generals who had committed treason against the United States - and lost."
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