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Arts & Culture

Controversy Over Confederate Flag Plate In Texas

The current Texas license plate.
Photo courtesy Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.
The current Texas license plate.
Texas Confederate Plate
Texas Confederate Plate

At first, Granvel Block didn’t get what the fuss was all about.

In charge of the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, his group has already won approval for Confederate flag license plates in nine states. And applications are before three others. But critics here in Texas – home to more than 100 specialty plates – say the group has racist motives.

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Block countered that it’s them playing politics with history.

“The education that these people have and the things that they say are completely misguided,” he said. “They really need to go back and check their history books.”

The leading charge is that the plate resurrects and legitimizes slavery. But Block says his group, with 35,000 members nationwide – 2,500 in Texas – is simply trying to honor the lives of Confederate soldiers.

He reminded skeptics that Northerners also had slaves: “They didn’t want to get rid of the slavery that they had in the United States any more than the Confederate states did.”

Block said the license plate is simply a fundraising tool. The group pays a lump sum of $8,000 to the state, but then gets a portion of each $30 specialty plate fee. The funds will be used for grave markers and to build memorials and monuments.

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Oliver Hill doesn’t buy any of it.

“That flag was used to intimidate and to murder – to lynch – Black folks back when the Ku Klux Klan was at its heyday here in Texas,” said Hill, president of the San Antonio chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “So it’s just a reminder to us that we haven’t gotten as far in race relations as we should have gotten.”

Hill is part of a statewide campaign by the NAACP against the Confederate plate. To him, just having to talk about this issue makes his stomach churn.

“In my days here in San Antonio, discrimination was rampant. The back of the bus. Separate water fountains. Segregated schools,” Hill said. “The Confederate flag reminds me of those things right back again that I had to go through.”

Yet the Confederate veterans seem to have found an unlikely ally – the descendants of their former enemies: Union soldiers. The two organizations share a deep historical bond and today they have mutual respect and admiration for their work preserving military history.

For Lowell Hammer, past president of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the Confederate plate effort is fine by him as long as it’s truly about honoring history and not pushing a political agenda.

“This was part of our history and you can’t bury it,” said Hammer, the group’s only leader to have come from Texas. “So, as long as it’s displayed in a historical manner, we have no objections.”

There’s little doubt the plate proposal will continue to be mired in controversy. And not just in Texas.

With Rick Perry, the state’s governor, currently in the hunt for the Republican presidential nomination, the Confederate plate is now making national headlines. After avoiding the issue for months, Perry now says he’s against the plate. It’s tricky political maneuvering because he wants to maintain a strong Southern image while pursuing a larger audience.

“For someone running for president who’s trying to establish himself as a credible candidate on the basis of national policy, this would be diversionary in an unhelpful way,” said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Texas political insiders say Perry’s public opposition sends a message to the Department of Motor Vehicles board – all Perry appointees. Their next meeting is November 10; an up or down vote on the Confederate plate is expected.

But even then, the issue won’t simply fade away. The Sons of Confederate Veterans are ready to sue if the plate is not approved.