BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — One by one, the four Confederate-era monuments came down in New Orleans, removed because of outrage by those who saw reminders of slavery and white supremacy chiseled in their stone faces. But at least one Louisiana lawmaker who argued earlier this year against protecting such statues found her inbox flooded with emails overwhelmingly in support of the monuments staying put.
More than 100 emails were obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. They showed that opposition to the removal of Louisiana's statues ranged from short and cordial pleas to long, angry messages about wiping away history. The messages were sent in April and May as New Orleans removed monuments that long paid homage to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee and others.
Confederate statues, flags and plaques have faced new scrutiny since a white supremacist — who previously brandished Confederate battle flags in photographs — killed nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church in 2015. Around the South, authorities debate whether such symbols represent racism or an honorable heritage.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, a black Baton Rouge Democrat, received 105 emails alone, almost all favoring a proposal by her Republican colleague Thomas Carmody that would have erected obstacles to tearing down such monuments.
The AP agreed to receive a sampling of just one lawmaker's inbox, Smith's, after a House clerk's search of all representatives' inboxes yielded more than 1 million potentially relevant messages on the issue. Smith had spoken passionately about the emails on the House floor, arguing Carmody's measure had caused "the worm" of racism to emerge.
"Our history is our history and we should not allow elected officials to pick and choose what parts of history get destroyed or get revered," one email said. Another declared: "Cannibalizing cultural memory is not progress."
Many of the emails were sent to dozens of lawmakers; few were just to Smith alone. None used profanity or slurs, though Smith said she deleted some objectionable messages.
As for the rest, she read some, responded to a few, but largely ignored them.
"From last year, my mind was made up," Smith said, referring to a similar bill she had voted against in 2016. "I was never going to vote for that bill."
Carmody's bill would have banned removal of any monument or plaque on public property commemorating a historic military figure or event — unless local voters approved its removal in an election.
Smith's emails largely echoed arguments constituents made when Carmody's measure died in a Senate committee on a 4-2 vote against, two weeks after the House approved the bill 65-31. The House vote May 15 prompted every African-American representative to storm out of the chamber in protest.
Those who supported Carmody's bill said ripping away monuments was akin to "erasing history." The proposal would not have applied retroactively to the New Orleans removals, but could have made it difficult for other Louisiana cities wishing to follow suit.
Smith, 71, said the bill's proponents — rather than being protectors of history — were minimizing past slavery and racism in the South.
"They feel like racism didn't exist," she said, recounting how one white woman told her in a hearing to "get over" slavery.
Several email writers argued that out-of-state Marxists, anarchists and anti-Fascists were largely behind moves to remove New Orleans' statues.
"If you do not vote to support our state's historic landmarks then you are siding with these Neo Communist Anti American Anarchists against the will of 73 percent of the citizens of Louisiana," said one email blast to nearly every House lawmaker, citing a 2016 LSU Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs poll.
And many emails directed anger at New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for championing removal of statues, calling him an "embarrassment" and a "tyrant." The first white mayor of mostly black New Orleans in decades, Landrieu called the statues celebratory of a South that defended slavery.
"Why allow (Landrieu) ... to rape our city and state of it's (sic) history?" read one email. "The bonfire he is inflicting on New Orleans will soon have its embers spread to your districts."
Landrieu's office told AP the mayor and the City Council had followed the legal process to remove the monuments, holding numerous public meetings.
Reflecting on a springtime in which New Orleans dismantled Confederate monuments and lawmakers dismantled the bill that would have protected other statues still standing, Smith now hopes the issue won't be resurrected.
"I'm hoping it doesn't come back," she said of the session that starts in March. "But you never know."
House Bill 71: http://www.legis.la.gov/