Over the years, I’ve come to understand the deepest truth about the South of my youthful experience: it was a very particular moment in the history of the segregationist regime. Although this could be known only after the fact, after the reality had been made, the South within which I came of age—during the two decades after World War II—was the period when the white supremacist social order was coming apart at the seams. I have often pointed out to students that the Jim Crow order had a specific and relatively brief life span. It was not completely consolidated until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. All of my grandparents were fully sentient and aware of their social environments, if not full adults, before the order’s features took definite shape and assumed the form of normal politics and everyday life. And during the roughly three decades or so between the regime’s consolidation and its slow, painful unraveling, the system was placed under considerable strain and reorganized internally by the Great Migration of black people out of the South or to cities within it, the Great Depression and the New Deal, the emergence of the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the war. And in large and small ways, black people never stopped challenging its boundaries and constraints—from the struggle over its imposition to its eventual defeat.
From that perspective, the segregationist order was never stable. It was only the white southern myth of timeless tradition, a myth installed partly at gunpoint as an element of consolidation of ruling class power, that gave it the appearance of solidity. Retracing that history, which contained and shaped but generally lies beyond the insight that can be drawn from personal experience, is necessary to fill in the picture of what the Jim Crow South was. However, because of the ways the past lives imagistically so near the surface of the present in the South, moments occasionally erupt that encourage, perhaps demand, critical reflection on the region’s actual history and that history’s relation to social and political life today.
The spring of 2017 produced such a moment in New Orleans. Two years earlier, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed removal of the city’s four most conspicuous monuments to the Confederate insurrection on public display. Mayor Landrieu, the first white mayor since his father left office in 1978 and the first mayor to have received majorities of both blacks’ and whites’ votes since before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, proposed removing the monuments not long after then South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. The flag had flown at the statehouse since 1961, when it was placed atop the capitol as a gesture of defiant commitment to segregation in the face of civil rights activism; in a 2000 legislative compromise it was relocated to another spot on the grounds, near a statue of the state’s legendary white supremacist terrorist, former governor and senator Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Haley acted in the wake of Dylann Roof ’s race-inspired spree killing in a black church in Charleston and peremptorily ended a long-running controversy over the flag. Following her example, Mayor Landrieu proposed an ordinance mandating removal of four publicly displayed monuments, which the City Council passed in December 2015, with a six-to-one vote, the one dissent coming from a post-Katrina white politician who had built her career largely on catering to Uptown, upper-status whites by demonstrating her combativeness toward perceived black interests.
After more than a year of public discussion and debate, the first and most openly noxious of the four New Orleans monuments, the so-called Liberty Monument, finally was removed in April 2017. The monument was erected in 1891 to commemorate the explicitly white supremacist Crescent City White League’s uprising perpetrated seventeen years earlier. The White League, which included many of the most prominent nominally white New Orleanians, including future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Edward Douglass White, represented itself as defenders of a “hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization.” It’s worth noting that for decades many Italian Americans also were affronted by the monument, which they associated with the 1891 lynching of Sicilians by White League veterans who invoked the spirit of September 14, the date of the original insurrection, in their bloodlust. (In 2019, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who is black and the city’s first female to hold that office, issued an official apology for the lynching.) In 1932 the city added inscriptions to the obelisk that lauded the insurrection for having installed a government elected “by the white people” and praised the 1876 election that “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”
For nearly a century that monument was located at the foot of Canal Street, the city’s symbolic entry point from the port. From the 1940s to the 1980s it was, after the Algiers ferry landing and a truly seedy tattoo parlor, the first thing one saw on entering the city. Its removal had been the source of earlier controversies in the mid-1970s and early 1990s, when it was eventually relocated from its prominent position and secluded between railroad tracks and power lines behind a hotel and the aquarium. The other monuments targeted for removal were a statue of Jefferson Davis, former president of the so-called Confederate States of America, erected in 1911; one of Robert E. Lee, commander of the insurrectionist army, erected in 1884; and one of P. G. T. Beauregard, another Confederate general, albeit one with ties to New Orleans, erected in 1915. I happened to be in New Orleans for the removal of the last three.
On May 1, I made a spur of the moment trip there, triggered by a message from a family member who hadn’t been able to reach my mother for their regular early morning phone call. I’d gone up to New York a few days earlier to visit my dear friend, Judith Stein, who had just gone into hospice. I’d gotten worried calls like that before, but they were always false alarms. So until then my practice had been to wait a while and try to catch up with my mother later. That time, though, I immediately booked a flight. My mother was a few months from her ninety-fifth birthday and seemed to have slowed a bit on my visit a few weeks earlier. When I arrived on May Day, I noticed that she’d not performed some of her early morning rituals: the front gate was still locked; the newspapers were still in the front yard, and she hadn’t opened the hurricane shutters on the front porch, all of which usually had been taken care of by dawn. We spent three good, quiet days together, and she seemed to rally on the third evening. But she woke up the following morning in considerable physical distress and died in the hospital that afternoon with many loving nieces and nephews near.
My mother had lived on her own and self-sufficiently for more than the last forty years of her life. Until a few weeks before her death she did laundry every day and cooked three meals a day. Her mind was sharp to the very end. For a number of years she’d carried a cane more as a fashion accessory than to help her walk. She relented only within the last decade to accept having a housecleaning service come once a month or so and only the night before she died consented to have someone come for a couple of hours in the morning to help her get the day started. (Her house is a couple of blocks away from the Fair Grounds, where the Jazz and Heritage Festival goes on every year during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. The crowds were a real peeve for her, particularly as festivalgoers often tried to block her driveway. The day she died was the beginning of the second weekend, and one of the cousins joked fondly in the hospital that she determined that she just couldn’t bear another weekend of the commotion.) She was the oldest of my grandparents’ four children and the last to die. Only one member of that generation remains in the extended family, my uncle and father of six of my first cousins. I’m the oldest of the next generation of a dozen and now oldest in our branch of the Macdonald bloodline in the United States.
I remained in the city for nearly a month after my mother’s death and flew back to Philadelphia then mainly to rescue my car from a daily airport parking garage. I left assuming it was probably another false alarm and booked my return on May 4, thinking I could get in and out of the city between the two weekends of Jazz Fest. May turned out to be a particularly morbid month. Judith Stein died four days after my mother, and on Memorial Day I got word that an old, dear friend, more like a brother, from the GI anti-war movement had just entered hospice care in New Hampshire. I was able to get up there to see him. He died a little more than three months later, on my mother’s birthday, the second dear friend and comrade to die on that date, though fifteen years apart.
Therefore, I was in New Orleans for nearly all the final, overheated controversy over removal of the monuments. The Liberty Monument was taken down with relatively little hubbub a week before I arrived in the city. Its odious history was so obvious that most of the monuments’ defenders seemed prepared to concede that one. Not so for the other three. Each of them was “guarded” by ragtag bands of self-styled defenders of “heritage.” They were by and large a motley crew, largely from out of town and outside the state. The group at the Beauregard monument, a couple of blocks from our house and which I passed for years on my daily walk through City Park, was anchored by a small squad who were living in the park out of a camper on the back of a pickup truck that advertised a Florida pet grooming business with a license plate reading PET KARE. A bumper sticker under the Confederate battle flag decal in a camper window sported the familiar canard “Heritage not Hate.” The group’s apparent leader, or at least its Energizer Bunny, was a hardscrabble woman whose generally animated performance suggested either crack or meth enthusiasm. She frequently marched around the statue waving the Bonnie Blue original flag of the Confederacy, wearing a bush hat, halter top, athletic shorts, and sneakers, with what looked like a pistol butt protruding from the top of her shorts. The group’s posters linked “heritage art,” praise for veterans, and, incongruously, love of Israel. One read, “First Davis, Then Jesus;” another proclaimed, “Wake Up Amerika, Marxism Is Here,” and one protester tellingly sported a banner reading, “PRESIDENT TRUMP, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” As I passed them one day, I overheard a woman waving a Don’t Tread On Me flag mention to a fellow protester that she had to get something from her pastor.
The Jefferson Davis monument drew larger crowds of defenders, more heavily armed and boisterous, but also largely from out of town and including a man-bites-dog smattering of nonwhites, among them a young black man wearing a hoodie that covered his face in the heat of the day. Supporters of removing the monuments usually at least doubled the number of opponents. For all their posturing and enacting professional-wrestling-cum-Red Dawn cosplay fantasies, they melted away from the police presence at the moment of removal on May 11, the day after my mother’s funeral. Some of them moved over to reinforce the crew at the Beauregard statue. The Lee statue was atop a ninety-foot pedestal at what was formerly Tivoli Circle or Place du Tivoli, a key node in the city, renamed Lee Circle, and which will be renamed again. It was also a site of clashes between largely out-of-towner “heritage” protesters and their opponents.
As I wrote on my mother’s front porch six days after her funeral, the Beauregard statue—which was erected seven years before she was born—was being taken down. I could hear the sounds attending its removal, from both the machinery involved in the process and the competing chants of pro- and anti-monument protesters, which culminated in a loud cheer when it was taken away. The Lee statue was taken down two and a half days later. That ended the controversy, except for the occasional hiccup from disgruntled monument defenders, and the city finally is rid of those public celebrations of slavery and white supremacy that I’m hardly alone in having detested all my life.
Excerpt from The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives by Adolph L. Reed Jr., published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2022 by Adolph L. Reed Jr.