Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Local Texas SCV License Plate Updates

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 1, 2011

Recent developments in the public discussion over the proposed SCV license plate that caught my eye.

First, Texas legislators State Representative Sylvester Turner and State Senator Rodney Ellis argue that the state should reject the plate, using familiar arguments against the plan:

The Sons of Confederate Veterans largely dismisses the flag as a symbol of racial oppression and suggests such a view would be a misreading of the flag’s historical significance and use.

But the Sons of Confederate Veterans is attempting to rewrite a history of the South and Southern culture without a critical perspective on the damaging institution of racial slavery. . . .

Texas does not need a state-sanctioned vanity plate for the Confederacy. The reasons for this are clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution and in hundreds of efforts since the Civil War to provide equality for all citizens.

If there are Texans who wish to honor the Confederacy, let them do so on their own, through their organizations and their associations. They have the right to such free speech in the marketplace.

The state should not be a willing party to an effort to honor a symbol of those efforts that sought to divide the nation and, in doing so, fought a senseless war that took the lives of thousands of Americans.

Turner and Ellis are dead right in their assessment that the SCV (and other heritage groups) have turned a blind eye toward the long and ugly history of the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol, choosing to focus instead on a somewhat narrow interpretation of its history in 1861-65, and willfully ignoring its much more recent usage — not by fringe hate groups, but by supposedly “respectable” people — as a symbol of intolerance and violence (figurative, if not actual). No one group, whether the SCV or the NAACP, has the prerogative to unilaterally define what the CBF “means” to others.

It turns out that my county’s Tax Assessor-Collector, Cheryl Johnson, is on the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle License Board that will decide the matter. The last time it came up for a vote (when it tied 4-4), she not only voted in support of it, it was she who made the initial motion to approve a batch of applications that included the SCV plate.

Johnson said she plans to vote for including the plate should it come up for a vote again. She said her support was not for the symbolism of hate but because the state likely would lose a lawsuit and be forced to include it anyway.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have threatened to sue the state should the resolution not pass.

“To me, it’s a freedom of speech issue,” Johnson said. “(Sons of Confederate Veterans) have sued before to get the license plate and have won. I voted in favor because I didn’t think the state would win any lawsuit.”

So that’s a “yes” vote, but we’ll-get-sued-and-lose-anyway isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the plate.

Finally, Heber Taylor at the Galveston County Daily News suggests that a way around the issue is to use a different flag, on that’s less divisive, and squares well with Texas symbolism:

Use the real flag. The official one. The one that flew over government buildings in Texas during the Civil War.

That flag is called the Stars and Bars, and it has flown at theme parks such as Six Flags Over Texas, where the purpose is to educate customers, rather than to gratuitously offend.

The Stars and Bars doesn’t look like the Confederate battle flag. The official Confederate flag looked a lot like the United States flag — so much so that the soldiers on both sides were confused. In early battles, they tended to shoot friend as well as foe. So the Confederate armies carried a flag with a different design in battle.

The problem with that symbol is its history after the war, during the terror of Jim Crow. Many, perhaps most, people view it as a symbol of hatred and racism.

How do you say yes to history and no to racism?

Actually, it’s not that hard in this case.

The answer is indeed not that hard. Unfortunately Mr. Taylor’s suggestion will be a non-starter, because (as noted previously), this plate has nothing to do with honoring Confederate soldiers or commemorating the war; it’s aboutusing the aegis of state government to promote the SCV as an organization. The proposed plate says nothing about the war, or the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers or civilians; it doesn’t depict a soldier or other item representative of that conflict; it reads “Sons of Confederate Veterans” with the logo of that group, which features the CBF as its central device. They won’t change the flag on the plate because the whole point is to promote the SCV, first and last.

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10 Responses

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  1. Margaret D. Blough said, on November 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    The biggest mistake was states ever allowing vanity plates, particularly those sponsored by organizations, to exist at all. In the first place, police hate them because they can make it difficult if not impossible to determine what state issued a license plate on a vehicle being pursued, especially if the plate has artwork. It was done, IMHO, because it raised a boatload of money. The problem is that, once that door is open, short of obscenity (the definition of which is a magical mystery tour in its own right), if a state tries to reject a license plate because of the viewpoint expressed, then one is looking at a charge, with a extremely good chance of success, of content-based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Such a restriction must survive strict scrutiny to withstand a constitutional challenge in the courts and that doesn’t happen very often. Cheryl Johnson was expressing this reality.

    There is a remedy but I don’t see states giving up the bucks that the vanity/message plates bring them. I wish they would. My feeling is that, if you want to use your car as a billboard for your views, get a bumper sticker.

  2. BorderRuffian said, on November 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    “Turner and Ellis are dead right in their assessment that the SCV (and other heritage groups) have turned a blind eye toward the long and ugly history of the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol choosing to focus instead on a somewhat narrow interpretation of its history in 1861-65,”

    Yes, 1861-65. That’s exactly what they should do. That’s what their organization is about- 1861-65.

    And enough of the selective demonization of the Confederate flag. Used as a scapegoat for some other flags.

    US flag in pro-segregation demonstrations-

    Pro-segregation rally in Arkansas-
    http://www.digitaldocsinabox.org/images/CivilRights/capital_rally.html

    Pro-segregation march (note US flag in front of marchers)-
    http://www.digitaldocsinabox.org/images/CivilRights/mob_marching.html

    Michigan Segregation Crusader, Tiananmen Square, Pontiac, MI-
    http://www.reuther.wayne.edu/node/6724

    • Andy Hall said, on November 1, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      This is disingenuous, even for you. Of course the U.S. flag has been used for all sorts of ugly causes. No one suggests otherwise. What I reject is the notion that Confederate heritage groups alone should determine the “true” meaning of the Confederate Battle Flag, and refuse to acknowledge that those who object to its display, often have very good (and first-hand) reason to.

      Those of us who salute the U.S. flag have an obligation to acknowledge that it was also the flag that flew on slave ships, at Wounded Knee, at Manzanar, and at Mỹ Lai — and in all those places, it represented the South as much as it did the North. You take the bad with the good.

      When will the SCV and other heritage groups do the same for the Confederate Battle Flag?

  3. BorderRuffian said, on November 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    “Of course the U.S. flag has been used for all sorts of ugly causes….

    Those of us who salute the U.S. flag have an obligation to acknowledge that it was also the flag that flew on slave ships, at Wounded Knee, at Manzanar, and at Mỹ Lai — and in all those places, it represented the South as much as it did the North. You take the bad with the good.”

    ***

    Right, but the US flag is not being demonized.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      I’m amazed at the tendency to accuse folks like me of “demonizing” or “South-bashing,” for pointing to the actual words and deeds of real, flesh-and-blood people, words and deeds that are, in this case, well within living memory. The segregationists carrying Confederate (and yes, U.S.) flags aren’t the ones who damaged the reputation of the South, it seems; it’s those nasty scalawag bloggers who won’t them go down the memory hole where they belong! 😉

  4. Historian said, on November 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

    If the SCV Plate is promoting the organization and that is condemed then so are the College plates, the state park plates, and sports plates….all to draw attention to their respective organizations and potiential membership. Any argument to try and racialize the SCV plates. I did not hear any uproar over the Buffalo Soldiers plates….the NAACP was probably dancing in the streets when they got their Buffalo Soldier (which were black soldiers) plates approved. This is another case of politicians pandering for votes to the minority, ignoring the FACT that 66+ percent of Texans, including blacks had no issue with the SCV plates. It’s just our racist and politicians that have an agenda that are preventing the public to make the decision on the plates, by purchasing them or not.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 24, 2011 at 9:37 am

      You’re right that the state is going to have a hard time defending the decision to deny this plate, when they’ve approved plates for so many other groups. I don’t think the Buffalo Soldiers analogy is a very good one, though, as I discussed here previously. It’s Jerry Patterson’s main talking point on this, and it’s a curious one. There seems to be a real tendency, when it comes to Confederate heritage discussions, for supporters to say, “but you’d do it for the black folks!” The SCV (and similar) groups will argue that “it’s not about race,” but of the dozens and dozens of groups and causes that Texas has granted plates for (including many related to veterans’ service) the chosen talking point is on the one focusing on African American soldiers? Really? Why is that?

      But again, my main point: this plate is being promoted as “honoring Texas Confederate veterans,” and it does nothing of the sort. It says nothing about the war, nothing about soldiers’ and their families’ sacrifices. It is, first and last, promoting the SCV as an organization. (Even the Confederate Battle Flag that has people so torqued is included as part of the SCV’s seal.) There are any number of ways that the Texas SCV could have designed a plate that actually said something about real Confederate soldiers, but instead they made a conscious decision to make it all about them — their name, their logo. It is a vanity plate, in every sense of the word. It’s state-sanctioned and subsidized promotion of the group, not of history.

      (And yes, I’m fine with doing away with specialty plates altogether — I don’t use one, and I understand law enforcement hate them anyway because they’re harder to read.)

      • D H Patrick said, on August 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm

        Andy,
        You are wrong. The license plate logo promotes the memory of Southern solders who gave their lives during the Civil War. Many who fought did not own slaves – slave owners were exempt form the Southern draft until 1863, then they were allow to provide substitutes. Personally I’m ashamed of those that would try to infringe on their acts of honor and valor.

        Don

        • Andy Hall said, on August 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm

          You must be looking at a different design than I am, because the one I’ve seen has a big SCV logo and the legend, “Sons of Confederate Veterans.” And that’s about all there is on the plate.

          There are innumerable ways of promoting the memory of Confederate soldiers that don’t involve the use of the SCV logo or name. Of course, the SCV operates under the conceit that it — and it alone — speaks for the memory of those folks. It doesn’t.


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