New Orleans starts to take down controversial Gen. Robert E. Lee statue

The City of New Orleans started to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee Friday, a vestige of its Confederate past now viewed by the mayor and others as divisive.

The Lee statue is the last of four Confederate-related statues being removed in the southern port city where an active slave-trade flourished before the Civil War.

"This is the moment when we know what we must do, when we know what is right," Mayor Mitch Landrieu told a crowd of supporters.

He said the Confederacy was on the “wrong side history and humanity.”

“I  knew that taking down these monuments was going to be tough,” he said.

Crews were still working to remove the statue as Landrieu spoke in late afternoon.

The other three statues celebrating the Confederacy were removed under the cover of darkness.

At daybreak Friday, workers began taking out shrubs surrounding the statue with heavy equipment, Fox 8 New Orleans reported.

The station reported that workers with power tools had surrounded the base of the 60-foot tall monument.

About 100 people were watching the statue’s removal.

Illinois native John Renner, who is white, said the statue should remain because it represents history. But Al Kennedy, also white and a former New Orleans school board member, supported the removal.

Of the Confederate past, he said: "It's my history, but it's not my heritage."

The city of New Orleans said the statues were “erected decades after the Civil War to celebrate the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause,’ a movement recognized across the South as celebrating and promoting white supremacy.”

The mayor’s office said no public money has been used in the removal. The city said it raised $600,000 from private donors.

Landrieu had proposed the removal of the monuments after the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church. The killer, Dylann Roof, was an avowed racist who brandished Confederate battle flags in photos. That recharged the debate over whether Confederate emblems represent racism or an honorable heritage.

The Robert E. Lee statue was a familiar landmark for tourists and commuters who travel busy St. Charles Avenue by car or on one of the city’s historic streetcars.

Erected in 1884, Lee’s is the last of four monuments to Confederate-era figures to be removed in accordance with a 2015 City Council vote.

The city removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis last week; a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard on Wednesday; and a monument memorializing a deadly 1874 white-supremacist uprising in April.

Those three statues were taken down without advance public notice, a precautionary measure after officials said threats had been made against contractors and workers involved in the effort.

Of the four monuments, Lee’s was easily the most prominent, with the bronze statue alone being close to 20 feet tall. It’s an image of Lee standing tall in uniform, with his arms crossed defiantly, looking toward the northern horizon from atop a roughly 60-foot-tall column.

It towered over a traffic circle — Lee Circle — in an area between the office buildings of the city’s business district and stately 19th century mansions in the nearby Garden District.

Landrieu drew blistering criticism from monument supporters and even some political allies. But he insisted throughout that the statues honoring the Confederate figures must go.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.