Why Confederate monuments are coming down

New Orleans is the latest city to start taking down historical but controversial monuments that many say celebrate slavery and the Confederacy. Angry opponents see the move as suppressing or rewriting history in the service of political correctness. William Brangham talks to Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Read the Full Transcript


    But first: how we continue to wrestle with American history.

    New Orleans is just the latest city to start taking down historical, but controversial monuments that many say celebrate slavery and the Confederacy.

    William Brangham is back with that.


    In downtown New Orleans today, workers began removing the historic Robert E. Lee statue from his nearly 70-foot pedestal.

  • New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu:


    And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African-Americans, or anyone else, for that matter, to drive by property that they own occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person's humanity seems perverse.


    The city dismantled this statue in the broad light of day, but three others were recently taken down under cover of night with no advanced notice. Because of threats of violence, city contractors wore masks and bulletproof vests, and were guarded by police snipers.

  • MAN:

    It's cheap. It's low. It's cowardly. If there ever was cowardice, this is an act of cowardice and treachery, right here. This is American history, whether you like it or not.


    This all goes back to a December 2015 city council vote to take down these monuments, following an op-ed by city native and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis urging the removal of the monuments.

    Many have argued it was an appropriate response to the killing of nine black church parishioners that year in Charleston, South Carolina, by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.

    Weeks after that attack, South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from its state capitol. Back to today, New Orleans plans to store the statues until it finds an appropriate location for them. But their removal has angered opponents, who see this as suppressing or rewriting history in the service of political correctness.

  • WOMAN:

    Many years later, when historians or politicians declare a war unjust or immoral, does that negate the ultimate price these soldiers and families paid? Soldiers do not make policy; elected leaders do.

  • WOMAN:

    A lot of this of — people are — against it are even not from here originally and don't understand our culture. And a lot of people even from here don't know their history.


    Last week in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Statehouse passed HB-71, which would require a referendum before any military monument could be renamed or removed. In a show of defiance, black caucus members walked out after vote.

    Meanwhile last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, torch-bearing protesters, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, marched against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue there.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center counts more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public lands across the country. The vast majority of those are in the South.

    So, is this the right approach for dealing with the darker sides of U.S. history?

    I'm joined now by two men who've wrestled with this very question. Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He's helping build a national monument to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama. And Walter Isaacson is a historian and writer and president of the Aspen Institute.

    Welcome to you both.

    Walter, I would like to start with you first.

    You are a native of New Orleans. You were there when they are bringing Robert E. Lee down off his pedestal today. What do you make of the city's moves?

  • WALTER ISAACSON, Historian:

    I think it's very, very good.

    As you say, these Confederate monument statues were put up not to honor the nobility of any of these people. It was put up in the 1880s, 1890s as a way to try to reassert white supremacy.

    New Orleans has had a 300-year history. We have just gone through a hurricane. If you're going to name the people we should have monuments to, it's not Confederate generals. So, I think there is a big sigh of relief today as the last of these comes down.


    Bryan Stevenson, what is your reaction to this? How does this sit with you?

  • BRYAN STEVENSON, Founder, Equal Justice Initiative:

    Well, I think it's also very long overdue and a really important step for one of America's great cities that wants to be open and inviting to all the people of the world.

    And I think this legacy of racial inequality and segregation has really put a cloud over New Orleans. And these statues and monuments have reflected that cloud more powerfully than anything.

    These totems are made of concrete and steel and bronze, but they have been screaming at African-Americans for decades. And what they have been screaming is this narrative of racial difference, this history of white supremacy.

    So, I think this is long overdue. And part of that has to do with the legacy. I don't the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude and forced labor. I think the real evil of American slavery was this narrative of racial difference we created, the ideology white supremacy that we made up. We said black people are different than white people. They're not fully human.

    Our courts held that black people were only three-fifths human. And our 13th Amendment dealt with involuntary servitude and forced labor, but it didn't deal with this ideology of white supremacy.

    And because of that, I don't think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved. And the proof of that was the erection of these narratives or these monuments and totems, which came after a violent resistance, as Walter said, to racial equality.

    And they have been there for decades screaming that that narrative of racial difference, that resistance to the end of emancipation, to integration is something worth honoring. And I think that has to change if we're going to be a country that makes progress in dealing with racial inequality.


    I would agree that it was good to have the discussion, too, Bryan, which helped this city.

    When I was first asked to be on the Tricentennial Commission down here, Wynton Marsalis said, I will do it with you if we take down Robert E. Lee.

    And I said, well, I never paid much attention to Robert E. Lee when you go around Lee Circle. And Wynton said, I did. We did.

    And that helped us do a dialogue down here, which now is pretty complete.


    But, Walter, you heard Bryan say that they were screaming, that these statues were screaming about inequality and white superiority.

    There's also a great deal of screaming, the people who are furious that these monuments are coming down. How is a mayor or a governor anywhere in the country supposed to wrestle with that very real boiling anger over these exact moves?


    Well, I think what happened here in New Orleans is, we spent a lot of time talking about it, and the anger, especially among local citizens, receded.

    I think there's a willingness now to put this behind. As I said, I just came from Lee Circle. There is a brass band there playing the national anthem.

    I think that, once we had this catharsis of talking about it, there were people who protested the monuments coming down, but they were all outsiders who had come in from these weird groups around the country.

    In New Orleans right now, it was a daytime, very peaceful thing to get this monument down, and I think the whole process of talking it through, and realizing that we don't need to put the Confederacy on a pedestal in New Orleans, which wasn't even part of the Civil War, really.


    Bryan, one of other criticisms that has been brought up is the potential for a slippery slope here, which is, where do we stop?

    I'm talking to you from Washington, D.C.. We have the Washington Monument. We have Jefferson's Memorial. We have monuments all over the country that honor people who held slaves.

    How do we — where do we draw the line as to what stays and what goes?


    Well, I think it's important to have a conversation about what we honor and why.

    But I think there's a huge difference between Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and people who were the architects and defenders of slavery, people who were actually considered traitors and treasonous, many of whom thought should be hanged after the Civil War.

    And I think it's just a radical difference between what we see in the American South. We have states, like my state of Alabama, where Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday, where Jefferson Davis' birthday is a state holiday. That's very far away from the conversations that we're having in other parts of the country.

    And I think it does matter. We talk about memorials a lot. We have a 9/11 Memorial in this country because what happened on 9/11 was significant to the nation, to its history, to its culture. And we believe in the power of memorials to say something about who we are.

    That doesn't mean that, if a nation put up a statue honoring Osama bin Laden, we would think that that is acceptable. We would be absolutely provoked by that.

    And so there is a way to think about what we honor that reflects who we are, what we think is significant. The greatest person, the most influential person of the 20th century was arguably Adolf Hitler. That doesn't mean that there should be statues of him in Germany. We would be very provoked by that.

    And so I do think we have to ask hard questions. And I think, on the question of the Confederacy and the architects and defenders of white supremacy, symbols of resistance to integration, there should be no debate. We cannot move forward if we actually think there is something acceptable about honoring that legacy.


    Walter, what do you make of that? Is there a slippery slope, is there a line that is clear to you as well as to what stays and what goes?


    You know, William, all slopes are slippery. That's why you try to find a moral footing.

    Bryan got it right. You say, what was the purpose of this memorial? We have a memorial in this city right behind me — look over my shoulder — to Andrew Jackson. That's because it was put up in 1840. In the square where Jackson's statue is, that's where he mustered the troops to win the Battle of New Orleans. So, that memorial is there to honor that.

    He was a bad slave owner. He had a lot wrong with him. But you have to say, is this a symbol of white supremacy and Confederacy and traitorousness, or is it because he won the Battle of New Orleans?

    People who say things are slippery slopes, of course they are slippery slopes. That's why you have moral arguments to say, where do I put my footing, where do I try to draw the line?


    All right, Walter Isaacson, Bryan Stephenson, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.



Listen to this Segment