BATON ROUGE – Still fighting the Civil War, after hours of heated debate, the Louisiana House on Monday night approved a bill to protect Confederate monuments statewide.
Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards on Tuesday called the bill “problematic,” impractical and unnecessarily divisive, but he did not say whether will veto it if it comes to his desk.
While Louisiana’s Confederate past “is certainly a part of our history, can we say it’s the best part?” Edwards asked, hours after a news conference called by the Black Caucus to urge the Senate to strike down the bill. The entire Black Caucus walked out of House chamber in protest Monday after the bill advanced.
Confederate monuments in New Orleans – four monuments in particular – have become a heated subject since they were slated for removal by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council in the summer of 2015. Two of the four monuments have come down in the past three weeks, after a vote by the City Council. A third monument was in the process of coming down Tuesday night.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, was approved by 65-31. It bars local governments and municipalities from removing plaques and statues for “military figures” and events, without a public vote.
“My bill in its current posture is a perfect exercise of democracy,” Carmody said on the House floor. “It allows for the people to have their input in the decision to remove military monuments from the public spaces in which they live.”
Several Democrats called the bill “offensive,” especially those belonging to the Black Caucus.
Rep. Joseph Bouie, a New Orleans Democrat who is chairman of the caucus, said his fellow House members showed poor leadership by advancing the bill.
In June 2015, after a gunman killed nine and wounded three others in a predominantly African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, several communities throughout the South reconsidered the message sent by their prominent displays of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag. Several states removed the flag from statehouse grounds and state-issued license plates.
Carmody’s own town of Shreveport has been embroiled in debate over what to do with a Confederate monument in front of the parish courthouse.
In New Orleans in the summer of 2015 after Mayor Landrieu called for the removal of Confederate memorials across the city, a 60-day public comment period was held, featuring a succession of contentious public meetings filled with heckling from both sides. Finally, two city commissions voted 6-1 to take the monuments down.
Several lawsuits were filed against the city, by the Monumental Task Committee, and asking for 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 Barbier that the statues must come down, death threats against the family of the first contractor hired to remove the monuments caused him to pull out.
Carmody was the only lawmaker to speak in favor of the bill Monday. He said its aim is not to preserve Confederate monuments so much as to give local residents a say in the issue.
“I was disappointed to look up at the scoreboard and see how people who I consider friends voted on this,” said New Orleans Rep. Gary Carter, a Democrat, “especially after we were able to express to them the personal nature and the offensive nature of this.”
The bill will not affect the four New Orleans monuments set for removal.
On Tuesday night a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the Esplanade entrance to City Park was in the process of coming down. In late April an obelisk honoring an uprising in 1874 during which white New Orleanians shot police officers to protest Reconstruction, and which bore a plaque commemorating white supremacy, was removed under cover of night, with armed police surrounding the scene to reduce the chances of violence. The second monument, of Jefferson Davis, came down last Thursday around daybreak as a handful of protestors from both sides stood by watching.
Workers removing the monuments have generally worn bulletproof vests and helmets and have covered their faces to obscure their identities.
The city has not indicated when the fourth monument, of Robert E. Lee on horseback, will be removed.
“Today we take another step in defining our city not by our past but by our bright future,” Mayor Landrieu said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the Beauregard statue was in the process of coming down. “While we must honor our history, we will not allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of New Orleans.”
Pierre McGraw, president of the Monumental Task Committee, which brought the lawsuits against the city, said during an afternoon news conference across the street from the Beauregard statue that he didn’t see any way to save it.
“It seems like all evil forces are in motion right now for a takedown,” McGraw said.