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Cumbersome process in Baton Rouge makes it hard to change Confederate street names

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, may face an uphill battle as it attempts to rid the city of street names that honor Confederate soldiers – men who gained their notoriety by being “heroes” of the Confederacy, openly shared their thoughts that Black people were far inferior to the white race and who, ultimately,  betrayed their own country to secure its most prized possession: enslaved people.

The effort to rid the community of these tributes to the Confederacy and create a more inclusive and equitable community began with hope. Last year, Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broom established the Commission on Racial Equity and Inclusion. On May 12, 2021, Councilwoman Erika L. Green introduced a resolution creating an advisory council to provide recommendations and guiding principles to the commission regarding the renaming or honorary designation of no more than five public streets.

However, Baton Rouge’s street renaming process is lengthy and potentially burdensome – a process that in itself appears to serve as a deterrent for anyone recommending such name changes.

The city-parish’s Unified Development Code requires a person or group to first submit an application to the planning commission requesting that the name of a street be changed. And that application must include a petition signed by a majority of property owners along the entire length of the street saying they agree with the change.

Then public notices to local agencies and advertising in the newspaper must occur detailing the request, followed by public hearings before the planning commission and the Metropolitan Council. Additionally, the applicants are responsible for paying for the cost of replacing existing street signs if the request is approved. The good news is that the commission has the power to recommend a change to this process.

However, obstacles remain. There’s the issue of the advisory committee being charged with recommending no more than five streets for renaming. As of today,  there are potentially 19 streets that bear the names of Confederate generals in Baton Rouge. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, for example, each have multiple streets bearing their names. For the advisory committee to only recommend five of those 19 would be problematic.

First, if these streets occur in clusters, a trend that can occur in communities, then the replacement of one street name will likely result in other Confederate street names remaining within the same area – hardly ridding a community of Confederate symbols. Furthermore, according to the commission, pushback from citizens within East Baton Rouge Parish is highly likely, yet no reason for said pushback has been given.

Green told The Advocate newspaper that she sees the advisory council as an avenue to hold organizations accountable for anti-racism stances adopted in the wake of the George Floyd demonstrations.

“Everyone in 2020 stood publicly and made these declarations saying they want to stop racism after he died, like [the Baton Rouge Area Chamber],” she said. “Let’s see if they will stand by that and support this effort. This can become an opportunity to put action to the words they put out.”

The mayor-president and Green, along with other councilpersons, appear to want to at least remove offensive and racial symbols throughout the city.

Let’s hope the citizens of Baton Rouge join them.

Terry Landry is policy director for the SPLC Action Fund in Louisiana.

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