NEW ORLEANS (CN) — Under a clear, moonlit sky Wednesday night protesters on both sides of New Orleans’ Confederate monument debate gathered around makeshift fences enclosing a statue of Jefferson Davis that was slated for imminent removal.
“Jefferson Davis is the only president we have ever had,” a man who identified himself only as Allen and as the leader of the Confederates group said, standing among 20 or so supporters, many of whom were dressed in Civil War-era garb.
Half a dozen of the Confederate supporters paraded together periodically around the fence-enclosed monument, holding Confederate flags, singing “Dixie,” and intermittently shouting such things as “There’s a lot more of us coming, don’t you worry!” and “I’m your Huckleberry right here!”
The number of Confederate supporters did not increase during the night, though many cars drove by and honked, apparently in support of keeping the monuments.
The protesters carried signs stating “Mitch the great divider,” and “Mitch you Cuck,” referring to Mayor Mitchell Landrieu.
Cuck is slang used by white nationalists as an offensive term for cuckold.
Shortly after 10 p.m. the whole group converged around a priest who recited prayers and read several Bible verses.
Meanwhile, across the streetcar tracks that run through the “neutral ground” on Canal Street, roughly 60 anti-monument supporters hung out, drinking from cans of beer and hitting tambourines against their thighs or tapping out rhythms on makeshift drums. The scene was muted – to say the least – from the wild protests over past weeks. Bulletproof vests were apparent on the Confederate sympathizers, but guns, from either side, were not visible.
The principal of a nearby school, reportedly alerted by the New Orleans Police Department, contacted parents of students at Morris Jeff charter school on Wednesday evening to let them know the Jefferson Davis monument was coming down early Thursday morning. Classes would be held nevertheless, the message said, but there would be no parking on Canal Street.
Administrators from Morris Jeff have complained in recent weeks about armed Confederate supporters protesting the removal of the monument. The administrators say the monument is technically on school grounds.
Carl Burkhalter, 61 and white, who said he lives not far outside New Orleans and who stood among the Confederate sympathizers Wednesday night, said he had once been ashamed by his nostalgia for the Confederacy but now has embraced it because fighting in the Civil War was a legacy his great-great grandfather left to his family.
Burkhalter said it was not the Confederacy but the heinous repercussions of the Civil War on Southern life that created the hatefulness afterward. In Burkhalter’s view, the Civil War was about the economy, and had the South won, life for everyone – black and white – would have improved.
“Poverty and ignorance created the KKK,” Burkhalter said.
He said the Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee monuments mean the world to him because of the humanity of both men.
“Lee and Davis would be as horrified by Martin Luther King’s murder, as I was,” Burkhalter said. He said that rather than taking down the statues of Lee and Davis, other statues of Southern heroes, such as King and Malcolm X, should be added.
To Burkhalter, those who want to keep the Confederate monuments and those who would tear them down are separated by a century.
“They’re fighting the Freedom Summer of the 1960s that culminated with the murder of King,” Burkhalter said, indicating the “Take Them Down” protesters on the other side of Canal Street. “I’m fighting the 1860s.”
Charlie Schmitz, a white attorney in New Orleans who also stood among the Confederate supporters, said he worried that taking down the monuments is essentially rewriting history.
“Keep the monuments and keep the dialogue open,” he said. “Eliminate the statues and eliminate the dialogue.”
Schmitz also suggested adding new statues rather than taking down the old.
“Add a monument to King,” he said, gesturing toward Jefferson Davis, then had second thoughts. “Well, no, you couldn’t put up a monument to King right there next to Davis.”
The Jefferson Davis statue is the second New Orleans monument to go, of four that have been earmarked for removal. In late April an obelisk honoring an uprising in 1874 during which white New Orleanians shot police officers in protest of Reconstruction, and which bore a plaque commemorating white supremacy, was removed under the cover of night, with armed police officers surrounding the scene to reduce the chances of violence. The two remaining monuments slated for removal are of Confederate generals, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee. It is unclear when the last two removals will take place.
A last-ditch attempt to keep the Beauregard statue from coming down was thwarted by an Orleans Parish judge Wednesday. (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.)
Orleans Parish Civil Court Judge Kern Reese said Wednesday he could find no basis for granting an injunction to stop the city from taking down the Beauregard monument, which sits at an entrance to City Park.
Richard Marskbury filed the lawsuit Monday. He and has attorney Franklin Jones III, who has represented all challenges to the city’s plan to remove the monuments, presented several documents to Reese that they said raise new questions about who owns the land under the monument. Marksbury also claimed in the lawsuit that the city promised to use qualified contractors to remove the monuments, but so far has not.
In June 2015, after Dylann Roof killed nine people and wounded three others in an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, officials in several Southern cities called for removal of Confederate flags and other symbols from government properties.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for removal of the Confederate memorials in New Orleans in the same spirit.
During a 60-day public comment period that followed Landrieu’s proposal, two city commissions called for removal of the four monuments.
Plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order to stop the city from taking down the monuments while their case was pending. Landrieu promised not to do so until the outcome of the lawsuit was determined, but even after the Fifth Circuit upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, that the statues must come down, death threats against the family of the first contractor who was hired to remove the monuments caused him to pull out. Despite Marksbury’s claims, the city maintains the obelisk was removed by professionals.