DMV board shoots down Confederate license plate

Confederate License Plate 2018
Confederate License Plate 2018

The Dallas Examiner

Wars are battles of words and symbols, not just bullets. While the Civil War spanned from 1861 to 1865, the fight over the legacy of the Confederacy and its associated symbols continues.

On Dec. 6, 2018, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board voted in a 5-3 decision to reject the latest attempt by the state arm of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to get a specialty license plate approved.

Unlike the group’s 2011 design, the recently proposed plate did not include the Confederate battle flag. Instead, it depicted an SCV member posed as a 1st Texas Infantry soldier in a grey Confederate uniform holding the Wigfall flag.

At the public DMV hearing for the redesigned plate, the main argument was not about whether the tags displayed Confederate insignia, but whether the design was too similar to an existing specialty license plate for the Texas Bicycle Coalition.

Robin Stallings, the executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition Education Fund, objected to the SCV’s plate on grounds that their bicycle group’s “God Bless Texas” plate also displays a waving Texas flag on the left side of the tag, reported the Dallas Morning News.

“The plates are very similar,” Stallings told the board, concerned that controversy would harm sales. “It could cause a lot of confusion.”

Ag Commissioner’s backing

No stranger to controversy, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller came out publicly backing the group’s new design. If approved, the Department of Agriculture would have acted as the sponsoring state agency for the SCV Texas Division’s plate.

In March, Miller wrote a letter of support to the DMV stating that the money from sales – $22 for each plate sold – would go back to the SCV in the form of grants “for supporting charitable causes and related activities.” Miller defended the new plate, saying he “couldn’t see anything offensive about it.”

“I’m not one to rewrite history, and I don’t support taking the Confederate monuments down,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

Supreme Court ruling

The SCV Texas Division has been trying to secure a specialty license plate for over a decade. They originally wanted to display their logo, which featured the organization’s name and a square Confederate battle flag, but that design was rejected by the state in 2011. The group responded by filing suit against the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board, and the case eventually snowballed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

Writing for the majority opinion in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that the expression at issue was government speech, not private speech, and that the state maintains direct control over the messages on its plates, which “are, essentially, government IDs.”

When government speaks, it can “promote a program, espouse a policy, or take a position.” But in doing so, “it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.”

The 5-4 decision rejected the SCV’s argument that the license plates provided a forum for private speech, just as they had rejected a similar argument made in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, when a religious organization was trying to erect a monument in a city park.

In both cases, the court determined that the state’s denial is a form of government speech, which does not violate the Free Speech Clause.

While the SCV logo has been denied by Texas, SCV divisions in other states have had more success. DMVs in six states – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee – currently offer SCV vanity plates.

“Whether individuals have a right to display the flag is an entirely separate issue from whether the government should do so on state-issued property. It is important that Texas not go the way of other states,” Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe told The Dallas Examiner in 2011.

Undeterred by the Supreme Court’s decision, the SCV Texas Division went back to the drawing board, submitting their Wigfall design in 2018.

“Hate groups – neo-Nazis, the Klan, etc. – have hijacked the Confederate battle flag – the X with the stars on it. So African Americans could have a problem with that flag – not because its original purpose, but because it was hijacked by groups who have an agenda that is not ours,” Marshall Davis, the public information officer of SCV Texas told The Dallas Examiner in October.

“The first time we went to the DMV – our first attempt had that flag on it, which is our organization’s logo from the 1800s. And people had a problem with it. So we’ve come back with something we feel is completely unoffensive. No one ever has taken the Texas flag with battles on it and used it as a hate symbol – so what’s the knee jerk?”

Louis Wigfall and the Texas Brigade

The Confederate battle flag elicits a more visceral response, but is the Wigfall flag any less offensive to Black Americans?

The Texas regiment’s flag is named after Louis Wigfall, a politician who served as a Confederate States senator from Texas from 1862 to 1865. During the Civil War, he was appointed to full colonel of the 1st Texas Infantry, eventually promoted to brigadier general of the “Texas Brigade.”

As a member of the Fire-Eaters, a group of pro-slavery Southern Democrats, Wigfall supported the Confederate cause from the beginning. He was perhaps best known for his extreme devotion to the cause of slavery.

Using the Constitution as authority, Wigfall argued before the U.S. Senate in 1860 for “a clear, distinct recognition of the principle that man has the right to own property in man – yes, sir, and to traffic in the souls and bodies of men.”

The fight over Confederate symbols

The SCV’s plate design was redrawn, yet qualitatively it remains the same: a symbol of white supremacy and slavery to some and an emblem of Southern heritage and regional pride to others.

For Davis, the SCV license plate is meant to “honor the Confederate veterans from Texas who went to war. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a heritage organization – a heritage veterans organization – only.”

But the argument that Confederate displays represent “heritage, not hate” masks the true history of the Confederate States of America, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and both past and present injustices against African Americans.

“The Confederate battle flag is a vestige of an earlier age of oppression, but the defense of its presence at a statehouse or on license plates today is a threat because it so shockingly discounts the violence and discrimination African Americans still face,” wrote Barbara Combs, author of From Selma to Montgomery: The Long March to Freedom, in a New York Times op-ed.

“Removing such images will not eliminate racism, but when defenders of the flag insist it is merely a symbol of culture or heritage without acknowledging its other meaning, they threaten to rewrite and sanitize history.”

There has been some progress in removing Confederate reminders from the public square. According to a 2018 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 113 Confederate symbols have been removed since the 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina – an event that occurred the day before the Supreme Court denied the SCV’s suit.

The vast majority of public Confederate symbols – at least 1,740 as identified by the SPLC, from monuments and school names to official state holidays – still remain. Texas has led the way by removing 31 public reminders of the Confederacy in three years – the most of any state in the nation. Despite the record removals, Texas is still second in the nation for the highest number of Confederate memorials.

The Texas State Capitol alone has more than a dozen Confederate monuments and markers. Legislators, such as Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, have been pushing to get rid of these symbols. After more than a year of pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott and the State Preservation Board, Johnson’s efforts to remove the Children of the Confederacy Creed plaque, which states slavery was not the underlying cause of the Civil War, were successful.

The plaque was taken down and the license plate denied, but Confederate symbols remain, and the SCV Texas Division remains undeterred.

John McCammon, 1st lieutenant commander of SCV Texas, told the Dallas Morning News that he was disappointed but not discouraged by the denial of the Wigfall flag license plate, which “wasn’t because of anything controversial.”

“We’ll probably resubmit using another Texas flag,” he said. “There were several Texas flags used during the [Civil] War, and we can use one of those.”

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