As a Texan, I don't agree about very much with my state's governor, Rick Perry. But when he gets something right, I like to give him credit: On Oct. 26, he came out in opposition to a proposal to permit vanity car license plates that commemorate the Confederate States of America.
"We don't need to be scraping old wounds," Perry drawled.
The fact that Perry needs to make up a little ground on civil rights after the disclosure of his family's use of a regrettably named hunting camp doesn't undermine his position on the right side of this issue.
Nothing has more persistence and tenacity than a bad idea in the hearts of true believers. The true believers in this case are the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group organized in Richmond, Va., in 1896. The SCV bills itself as "a historical, patriotic and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved."
In at least nine states, the Sons of Confederate Veterans group has successfully sponsored the introduction of vanity license plates that feature the SCV logo and its prominent Confederate battle flag. In April, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles' governing board split 4-4 on the license plate. The board will vote again in November. In the meantime, the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a group called Progress Texas have submitted a 22,000-signature petition opposing the plates.
As organizations committed to the preservation of Southern heritage go, the SCV is on the benign end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, they get a lot wrong. Part of the "true history" that they hope to preserve includes the assertion that the "motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution" was the "preservation of liberty and freedom."
But one searches the SCV website in vain for any reference to the limitation of that liberty and freedom to white people.
Of course, citizens in our country enjoy the privilege of revising history as they see fit. The problem is that at the other end of the southern heritage spectrum are groups founded on old-fashioned racism and white supremacy -- genuine hate groups.
Somewhere in between the two extremes are groups like CSAnet, which claims to be the "E-Voice of the Olde South." I'd stop short of calling it a hate group, but its members are up to much more than the celebration of antebellum plantation life and the honor and dignity of those who fought for the Confederacy.
For example, CSAnet's homepage features a long essay titled "The Confederate Battle Flag: A Symbol of Racism?" Of course not, Charles Davidson argues. In fact, slavery is endorsed by God in both the Old and the New Testaments, blacks were never mistreated in the Olde South, and the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery at all.
In short, the modern obsession with Southern heritage encompasses a broad range of practices and beliefs, from the merely peculiar practice of dressing up like a Confederate soldier to twisted and malicious endorsements of slavery and racial superiority.
Yet all of these groups eagerly embrace the South's most potent symbol: the Confederate battle flag. You can find the flag emblazoned on bandanas and belt buckles, one-piece and two-piece bathing suits, cufflinks and coffee mugs. You can find it on bumper stickers that read "Secession: The Right Thing to Do."
And if the SCV has its way, you'll be able to find the battle flag on Texas license plates, as well.
The problem is that symbols come laden with their own meanings, and they don't allow us to select only the ones that we like. In private life, citizens can do as they please. But the Confederate battle flag, with its connection to a dark period in our history, has no place on a public, state-sponsored emblem like a license plate.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)
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