Symbols Matter. Words Matter.
That’s what one local entrepreneur, Frank Scurlock, reminded us of when he paid for skywriting during Jazz Fest. New Orleanians looked heavenward to find clouds shaped as peace symbols, hearts, and uplifting words like “Coexist,” “Honor,” “Forgive,” and “Love.” Scurlock explained that the messages were meant to remind people about the importance of caring for others and inspiring goodness in a world of increasing violence. With Baltimore under a curfew as its citizens rioted, these messages couldn’t have come at a better time.
This week, on behalf of the city that once sold more slaves than anywhere else in America, Mayor Landrieu asked for forgiveness and then called on our community to come together to discuss removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. “Symbols should reflect who we really are as a people,” he said. “I think today is the day to start having the conversation about what we should put at Lee Circle for our 300th anniversary, because symbols really do matter.” After the mayor’s announcement, Welcome Table community leader Lloyd Dennis put it best: “Whatever we see is passed through to our souls and helps inform who we are and how we will be.”
This brings us to the inscriptions on two statues in our city.
First, the Battle of Liberty Place monument celebrates white supremacy in Louisiana. Its original inscription denounced the “carpetbag government” during the Reconstruction Era and touted how “the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” In the 1990s, the monument was hidden behind the Shops at Canal Place, with a new inscription that signifies nothing. It reads: “In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place.” Secondly, the statue of Jefferson Davis exalts the President of the Confederacy with a plaque that reads: “His name is enshrined in the hearts of the people for whom he suffered and his deeds are forever welded to immortality. A majestic orator; in character firm; in judgment sound, in purpose resolute.”
These monuments do not represent our values.
Every so often vandals have spray-painted expletives, “SLAVE OWNER” or “NO” for example, over these monuments’ inscriptions, but what happened overnight on March 29th, 2012 deserves particular attention. The graffiti read “R.I.P Trayvon Martin” and “For Wendell Allen,” a 20-year-old unarmed African American man shot to death by a white police officer. Before serving his prison sentence, the officer told Allen’s family, “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a very long time how sorry I am.” In a moment of amazing grace, the family then forgave the officer and they all joined hands to pray.
Graffiti isn’t the answer – caring for others first and humbly seeking and giving forgiveness is.
White New Orleanians, Black New Orleanians, and all New Orleanians should support the effort started this week to address all public monuments that don’t honor the soul of our city. Here’s a reason that may surprise you: The success of our city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial culture depends on it.
Steve Case, AOL co-founder and chairman of Revolution Ventures, recently visited New Orleans. He told us: “Community, inclusiveness, and social impact are New Orleans’s advantages in the entrepreneurship game.” He also cited two staggering statistics — 75 percent of all investment goes to three states (California, Massachusetts, and New York), and around the same percentage goes exclusively to white male entrepreneurs. That’s immoral and unjust. It’s also an illogical investment strategy.
Case explained that our city is uniquely positioned to attract venture capital and build businesses that solve society’s most important problems, because here, diversity and cooperation are regarded as assets. He celebrated how we put community first, saying, “I think New Orleans is poised to re-emerge as one of the great startup cities in the country, maybe even the world.”
He’s right. In terms of startups per capita, we now outpace the rest of the nation in entrepreneurial activity by 56 percent. New Orleans could become one of the best places in the world to build a business, in areas as wide-ranging as water management, healthcare, education, and food/agriculture. But that will not happen by chance or without hard choices. The city should address the reality that the “sound judgment” venerated on these century-old statues just doesn’t make sense for modern-day New Orleans.
If you listen to the message from the streets, the work we must do includes naming the streets, just as we did recently for the Reverend John Raphael Jr. of New Hope Baptist Church. We should honor other great New Orleanians, including civil rights pioneers like Ruby Bridges, who have made our inclusive community possible, and business leaders like John Elstrott who have made New Orleans a great place for startups.
Addressing the monuments and honoring our modern day heroes will send a message to the world about our values. As we’ve seen elsewhere, standing up for what is right will also be smart business. And while we’re at it, let’s put up a statue at Hunter’s Field of a Mardi Gras Indian. This will be one inscription that truly speaks for us all, a simple but powerful message of resilience: “We Won’t Bow Down.”
The diversity of our community and diversification of our economy matter here – the PowerMoves.NOLA conference and the Welcome Table, both now in their second year, are tremendous examples of that. But to heed the lessons of Charleston, McKinney, Baltimore, Ferguson, and far too many other places, we have more work to do. We should all support our mayor and city leaders in their efforts to advance racial reconciliation and inclusivity.
Honoring our entrepreneurs and civil rights leaders will send an unmistakable message to innovators of every color and kind. The invitation will be clear: Come here. Build your businesses here. Contribute to the resilient, hopeful, and inclusive culture here. Only then will New Orleans become a symbol to the world of what is possible through the creative and collaborative power of a community that truly cares for everybody.
Lalka is the co-founder of Medora Ventures and on the board of the American Values Network. He has previously worked at Village Capital, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Office of Global Partnerships. He lives in New Orleans.