Since 1891 a monument celebrating white terrorism has proudly stood in the heart of New Orleans, yet this week the city of New Orleans finally removed the Battle of Liberty Place monument. The monument celebrates an attempt by the white supremacist terrorist group the White League to overthrow the government during Reconstruction, and return the city to being ruled by white oppression. Some residents of the city decried its removal and parroted the ludicrous “History Not Hate” rhetoric, and this only serves as a continuation of the pro-Confederacy propaganda movement the South has waged since the end of Reconstruction. As a society, we can no longer tolerate succumbing to this toxicity.
On Sept. 14, 1874, the White League stormed the New Orleans police station in an attempted coup d’état to remove the governor of New Orleans, Republican William Kellogg, and replace him with John McEnery, who had been his unsuccessful Democratic challenger in the 1872 election. The White League defeated the city’s integrated police department, and took control of the city for a couple of days before President Ulysses S. Grant sent down federal troops to reclaim the city. The White League quickly surrendered the city upon the arrival of federal troops, and the Battle of Liberty Place monument exists to remember the 100 White League members who died in the battle. That is to say, it exists to celebrate those who died in a failed coup with the explicit purpose of returning Louisiana to a white dominated society.
The White League, formed in 1874, was one of the last white terrorist groups that sprang up during Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan started in 1865 upon the completion of the war. The White League was founded by Christopher Columbus Nash, a former Confederate soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Civil War. On April 13, 1873, Nash led a white militia in the Colfax Massacre that killed approximately 150 freed blacks. The massacre erupted following white fury at the election of Kellogg to the governorship in 1872. This battle is one of the single biggest massacres of Reconstruction. Soon thereafter Nash formed the White League.
“Having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger,” read the platform of the White League.
Despite their clear racist and terroristic foundations, they represented a more palatable form of terror than the KKK. The White League was more mainstream than the KKK. This brand of terror had become normalized over the previous decade. The White League openly collaborated with the KKK, Southern Democratic politicians, and white business owners who facilitated the Redeemers movement to terrorize freed blacks and Union sympathizers to swing elections in favor of the Democratic Party.
President Grant was so alarmed by the threat to democracy that the White League posed that he wrote about them in his 1874 State of the Union Address: “White Leagues and other societies were formed; large quantities of arms and ammunition were imported and distributed to these organizations; military drills, with menacing demonstrations, were held, and with all these murders enough were committed to spread terror among those whose political action was to be suppressed, if possible, by these intolerant and criminal proceedings.”
Yet upon the end of Reconstruction the “intolerant and criminal proceedings” Grant described became not only tolerated, but celebrated. The era of Redemption occurred after Reconstruction ended in 1877 and the Southern states began a concerted campaign to disseminate a racist, whitewashed retelling of history that much of America still subscribes to today. The film Birth of a Nation spread this propaganda nationwide, and “separate but equal,” Jim Crow and black codes had become the norm in the South as they attempted to renormalize the oppressive reality of the pre-Civil War South.
In New Orleans, a monument to Robert E. Lee was completed in 1884, and the Battle of Liberty Place monument arrived in 1891. In the early 1900s, Confederate President Jefferson Davis received a monument in 1911, and soon thereafter the “Little Napoleon” P.G.T. Beauregard’s monument was completed in 1915. For over a century New Orleans celebrated and normalized “intolerant and criminal” white supremacy and the erosion of our democratic fabric, yet now all four of these monuments are slated for removal.
In 1932, a plaque was added at the foot of the statue describing that the purpose of the battle was for the “overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers” and that “the national election of November 1876 [that ended Reconstruction] recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”
Since the fall of Reconstruction as before, American society has largely chosen to turn a blind eye toward the reimagining of American history along a skewed, and seemingly polite, white oppressive narrative. We hear people utter absurd statements like, “Slaves and slave-owners got along peacefully before the Civil War.” A defender of the Battle of Liberty Place monument even claimed that his ancestor who died in the battle wasn’t a racist because he did not own slaves.
And all this isn’t as ancient as you might think. The Southern Mount Rushmore in Stone Mountain, Georgia, that depicts Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson was completed not in 1912 or 1922, but in 1972—at the location of the founding of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The Daughters of the Confederacy had been dreaming about this monument since roughly 1912, and construction on the stone carving had been started in 1923, but largely remained unfinished for decades. Then, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s facilitated a renewed interest in repainting Georgia’s skyline in the image of Confederate heroes. And now all of America can visit this Southern Mount Rushmore, conveniently located at 1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd.
Throughout the late 1800s and 1900s buildings, roads, schools, parks, and more have been named after treasonous Confederates to palatably normalize their terror. Children have been named after Confederate leaders, and even today I’ve had people ask me if Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III might have been named after Jefferson Davis. Considering that Jeff Sessions Sr. was born in 1860 at the cusp of the Civil War, and the reverence the South still holds for the Confederacy, this question may not be farfetched. And we may need to ask if he was also named after the “Little Napoleon” Beauregard too.
The pervasiveness of Southern oppression can creep into any aspect of American life, and historically, any form of tolerance for white racial oppression has facilitated the further spreading of white terror and a distorted, whitewashed retelling of American history. New Orleans’ decision to remove these monuments and celebrate the rich diversity that has always existed in the city is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, more municipalities will follow suit and free our society from the shackles of America’s pro-Confederate propaganda.