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Texas debates Confederate flag license plates

A state board will decide whether to approve the specialty plates. Supporters see it as a way to honor veterans, but critics call the flag a symbol of bigotry.

October 25, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • The Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed this specialty license plate in Texas.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed this specialty license plate… (Texas Department of Motor…)

Reporting from Houston — The Sons of Confederate Veterans see their proposal to emblazon special Texas license plates with the Confederate flag as a way to honor veterans and educate the public.

Opponents, including state lawmakers and the NAACP, see the idea as an attempt to glorify a symbol long ago co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles' nine-member board deadlocked on the issue 4-4 this year when one member was absent. After one of the board members who voted in favor of the license plates died in June, a second vote was postponed until Gov. Rick Perry appointed a replacement, a spokeswoman said.

The new board member, El Paso auto dealer Raymond Palacios Jr., could not be reached Monday. The board member absent during the previous vote, Marvin Rush, chairman of a New Braunfels commercial truck dealership, said through a spokeswoman that he had "not yet formed an opinion."

The board is expected to meet Nov. 10, but its agenda had not been released Monday.

The proposed specialty plates would feature a Confederate flag as part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans emblem.

"That battle flag is clearly a symbol of hatred and bigotry," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston on Monday.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, like Ellis a Democrat and African American, said, "What you ask the state to do is, in essence, give credibility to a symbol that has been used as a symbol of brutality and death."

Marshall Davis, a spokesman for the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Columbia, Tenn.-based group that claims 30,000 members nationwide, said they aimed to preserve history and to teach people about the "war between the states." Once a certain number of plates are sold, a portion of the proceeds will be returned to the group and used for educational purposes, he said.

"Our intent is not to offend anyone — our intent is to honor our Confederate war dead," he said.

The NAACP has gathered more than 22,000 petition signatures and a letter from at least 19 state legislators opposing the plates that will be presented to the DMV board next month.

Jackson Lee, Ellis and other lawmakers have called on Perry to speak out against the license plate proposal, but the governor — who faced widespread scrutiny this month after he acknowledged his father leased West Texas hunting grounds that were once known by the name "Niggerhead" — has demurred.

"The governor believes this is a decision for the board," spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said Monday.

But some proponents of the license plates think they have Perry's support.

Eleven years ago, when the NAACP pushed to remove the Confederate battle flag from government buildings across the South, Perry wrote a letter of support as lieutenant governor to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Davis kept the letter on his kitchen counter.

"I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques and memorials from public property," said the letter, later obtained by the Associated Press. "I also believe that communities should decide whether statues or other memorials are appropriate for their community. I believe that Texans should remember the past and learn from it."

Davis said the latest fray had drawn national attention because Perry is running for president, just as George W. Bush drew attention during his presidential campaign in 2000 for resisting NAACP efforts to remove Confederate plaques from the state Supreme Court building in the capital. Bush later changed his mind and authorized new plaques honoring equal justice for all Texans "regardless of race, creed or color."

Davis noted that Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia were forced to issue Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates after officials in the states balked and his group sued. They won a Florida court ruling in March, after state lawmakers refused to approve a plate.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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