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Down with General Lee? New Orleans will remove Confederate monuments

New Orleans will become the latest Southern community to take steps to remove symbols with ties to the Confederacy.

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The Robert E. Lee Monument is seen in Lee Circle in New Orleans, Sept. 2. New Orleans is poised to make a sweeping break with its Confederate past as it contemplates removing prominent Confederate monuments now standing on some of its busiest streets. On Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, the City Council is set to vote on an ordinance to remove four monuments. A majority of council members and the mayor support the move, which would be one of the strongest gestures yet by American city to sever ties with Confederate history.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File

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New Orleans City Council members voted on Thursday to remove four Confederate monuments, including a tall pedestal with a statute of Gen. Robert E. Lee atop it and three other local Civil War figures, following a string of similar measures in recent months across areas of the American South. 

By early afternoon, a raucous debate took hold of New Orleans City Council chambers, where constituents with disparate views expressed opinions on whether to remove the Confederate monuments in the hours leading up to a vote, which was 6-to-1 in favor of removal.  

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Last summer, officials in New Orleans began considering the removal of several monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders along a busy thoroughfare in the city. 

A debate has been simmering across much of the South since June, when a white gunman massacred nine African Americans inside a South Carolina church. The Confederate battle flag has been widely used by white supremacy groups, and the man charged with the shooting previously had posed for photographs with the battle flag.

During the last several months, many governments and universities in the South have begun removing Confederate battle flags from state capitols and eradicating or replacing monuments with ties to the Confederacy.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) has been a chief advocate of eliminating the city’s monuments with links to the region’s pro-slavery past.

"It would be better for all our children, black and white, to see symbols in prominent places in our city that make them feel proud of their city and inspire them to greatness," Landrieu told the New Orleans City Council in July.

Across the country, thousands of Confederate symbols still appear in at least 872 public locations in 44 states.

Protests among civil rights groups and the Black Lives Matter movement have been rising around the country over police abuse. While Confederate figures still remain an emblem of white Southern pride, changing demographics and political tides are causing a rapid shift in perception. A June poll found that 57 percent of Americans see the flag as a symbol of Southern pride rather than as a representation of racism.

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“There’s some validity to the fact that [flags and monuments] are part of Southern heritage, but then you have 30 percent of the population that are pretty highly offended by the flag,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the University of Charleston in South Carolina. “True, you can’t restrict somebody’s free speech, but you can say that as a government or a state we’re not going to put it in a prominent place, given how it’s being used by [hate groups] and the fear that it brings to a large portion of our population.”

It will cost $144,000 to remove the monuments, though a local donor has agreed to cover the costs, the AP said. The council will first need to pass an ordinance declaring the monuments a public nuisance. 

"It is a grand scale of symbolic rewriting of the landscape," Derek Alderman, a geographer at the University of Tennessee who is mapping Confederate symbolism nationwide, told The Associated Press. "It certainly represents a wholesale re-questioning of the legitimacy of remembering the Confederacy so publicly."

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.