BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Michigan tourist, Tracey Distel, was surprised by what she found tucked away inside the Old Louisiana State Capitol. It was statue of a Confederate soldier, once part of a monument built in 1886.
It's now part of an exhibit exploring the events that unfolded at the Old State Capitol during the Civil War. The statue stands with its original plaque, lauding Louisiana's Confederate soldiers, but a museum addendum explaining the context of the statue makes it more artifact than monument.
The surprising part for Distel was not the statue itself, but rather the fact that it had been removed from its public pedestal twice.
Originally erected on the edge of the castle grounds, the statue was moved to a more modest pedestal in the 1960s along North Blvd. In 2012, when the city started developing Town Square, officials decided the most appropriate spot for the statue was a museum. The move was made with little attention or issue, a stark contrast to the fierce fight surrounding the removal of several confederate era monuments in New Orleans.
That's a fight lawmakers are now waging among themselves.
House Bill 71, presented by Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, would require a public vote to change or remove any public military memorial, including the hundreds of plaques, markers, statues, streets, and structures commemorating the Civil War. After the bill passed the House with a vote of 65-31, with 9 abstaining, the Black Caucus walked off the floor. Caucus leader, Rep. Joseph Bouie, called the passage of the bill a disgrace and a "wounding" disappointment.
"It's not about war heroes. It's not about what they're saying. It's about usurping the power of the local municipality regarding public space," said Bouie in a press conference.
While some in the House are hopeful the bill with die in committee with the Senate, political analyst, Jim Engster, believes the numbers may be there to push the bill all the way to the Governor's desk.
"Most polls have shown the electorate squarely against the removal," said Engster. "As a result, that's why so many lawmakers who can somewhat empathize with what the Black Caucus is saying they're not willing to take a lot of political chances by voting against this bill."
Engster says it's no surprise the issue of how to present the state's complex history has become so divisive. "This is something that goes right to the heart of where we are. After all, the most treasured commodity of Louisiana is the LSU football team, which was named after a Confederate
war unit, the Louisiana Tigers," said Engster.
Governor John Bel Edwards has not yet said if he would veto the bill, but says he believes the issue should be left up to local governments. "Certainly those are historical figures and there is a proper place for them. What that proper place is will depend on the will of the people," said Edwards.
The governor also says the bill, as it is currently written, may have some practical problems. Edwards points out that many of LSU's buildings are named after military heroes from various conflicts, and would therefore possibly require a public vote before those buildings are torn down or changed.
"For example, Alex Box Stadium was torn down and moved recently. It's named for a war hero. Are we going to require people to have a vote? The bill would say yes," said Edwards.