Early this morning, by the light of the moon, street lamps, and construction equipment, a 116-year-old monument to Jefferson Davis was removed from its site in New Orleans. The sculpture casts the president of the Confederacy, whose states seceded and fought to preserve slavery in the US, as a dignified leader, gesturing towards unseen devotees with an outstretched arm and open hand. From 1911 until 5:05am today, it towered over a small circle of grass atop an etched stone pedestal that’s so massive, it took workers more than four hours to remove it.
The Davis statue is the second of four public, Confederate monuments set to be dismantled throughout the city, in a process that began in 2015 and has been met with extreme shows of support and opposition. As the sculpture was strapped to a crane hook and lowered onto a trailer this morning, advocates of the removal cheered and sang “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” while protesters waved large Confederate flags and booed.
At a moment when a man with utter disregard for history is the most powerful person in the country, and has given control of the Department of Justice to a man once deemed too racist to be a federal judge, removing a handful of monuments to white supremacy may not seem like much. But the images suggest otherwise. The photographs and video of the Davis statue — previously so graven and seemingly immovable, now wrapped in a yellow strap and green plastic, dangling above a truck like a piece of bait — are mesmerizing. Though they’re not as extreme, they recall images from around the world of falling statues of dictators. A grainy photo of Davis’s empty pedestal is stunning: where a figure embodying a murderous ideology once stood, there is now empty space, green trees, and a dark blue sky. That emptiness evokes possibility — what could we imagine to fill the void?
In the case of Davis — as with the dictators before him, and as will be with P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee after him — a despicable man was raised up and immortalized in stone. His representation was allowed to tower over and terrorize civic space (the Lee monument is 16.5 feet tall). Now he’s gone. There is something in that. These images remind us that change is tangible.