Lee Circle Without Lee

By. Patrick Hurd

Following the Mardi Gras parade route downtown along St. Charles, just past the overpass, lies 60 foot pedestal holding up empty air, surrounded by a roundabout without a name. The street surrounding the circle is filled with people waiting for the night parade, Endymion, to roll through. In years past, the white stone steps surrounding the empty pedestal would have been overrun with people trying to get a better view of the brightly lit floats, but this year a tight circle of porta potties, a chain link fence, and 10-15 police officers in bright yellow jackets discourage anyone from approaching the vacant monument. To say that there was tension in the air would be to overstate, but the police presence in the circle was certainly more visible, and concentrated, than in years past.
On May 19, 2017, the 16 foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from its perch atop the pedestal in what was known as Lee Circle, along with other monuments associated with the Confederacy. This was done according to a city ordinance enacted in 1993, which allowed for the removal of monuments which were seen as dangerous or as being against the values of the people of New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, son of former mayor Moon Landrieu, felt that, New Orleans being a majority African American city, it would go against the values of the people to allow figures of the Confederacy, historically associated with the slavery of African Americans, to hold prominent ideological positions within the city. Amidst a heated debate from both sides of the issue, the Confederate statues came down.
Less than a year later, as the first Mardi Gras since the removal of the statues, a stir was caused by the distribution of beads which read ‘Forever Lee Circle,’ which some took as evidence of the connection between the monuments and the confederate ideals (‘the south will rise again’). Dr. Richard Marksbury, a professor of History at Tulane University and vocal proponent of the monuments, disagrees with this connection, saying that “[t]he point of forever Lee Circle… was that, for the people who have lived in New Orleans all of their lives, it will, quote unquote, forever be Lee Circle. Whether they change it to Johnson Circle or Red Square Circle, or Green Circle, or whatever… It’s the memory that the people have. I guarantee you that during the parades there were [both white and black] families who said ‘let’s meet at Lee Circle’. It’s a way of identifying a part of the city.”
For Dr. Marksbury, the issue is less about the monuments themselves, although he is quick to point of that “if it were up to [him], no monument would ever go down,” but focuses on the execution of the removal of the monuments, and the ordinance itself, which he feels was “poorly written, [and] unconstitutional… Section two says that [a monument] has to be the site of a violent demonstration or may be in the future. You can’t have a law that says maybe. That means that the police could come to your door Today and say ‘we think you’re going to rob a store Tomorrow’ and arrest you. The government doesn’t work that way.”
Although he is unhappy with the way in which the monuments were taken down, Dr. Marksbury still believes there is a way in which the statues could be shown in environments where they would be acceptable for all, such as a Civil War museum: “The ordinance says public property. OK, then put it on private property… that would be fine. It’s contextualized… it would be safe”. The problem, he says, is that nothing being done with the statues now. “They’re just sitting in storage.” In the end, Dr. Marksbury accepts that “The city of New Orleans has the right to take any of its property down off of public lands… but they’ve got to own up to that and take responsibility for that. And they’ve got to involve the people, instead of this idea that it was a democratic process.”
With the mayor and the Mardi Gras Krewes releasing statements saying that they were discouraging any member of the parades from throwing or distributing the “Forever Lee Circle” beads, it was not a violent altercation, but a sudden and tremendous downpour of rain which dispersed parade goers from the empty pedestal halfway through the Endymion parade. When asked about why there were no vocal outbursts from either side of the debate, which had been so polarizing throughout the removal process, Dr. Marksbury says that, at the end of the day “this was… a man-made crisis. Nobody gave a flying you-know-what.”

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