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Clearing the Plates

Should officials control what’s posted on state-issued license-plate designs? Of course.

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Virginia officials hoped to yank the Confederate battle flag from state specialty license plates, and a federal court in Danville heard arguments Friday.

As the Virginian-Pilot's Bill Bartel reported over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser ruled that Virginia can stop issuing the plates, though it's unclear how the 1,691 motorists who already have the tags will be handled.
For administrative and moral reasons, th
e state should be allowed to excise this symbol of hate.

It's amazing that in 2015 — a century and a half after the Civil War ended — this was even up for debate.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans wanted to keep in place an injunction a federal judge issued 14 years ago, requiring Virginia to offer a specialty tag that includes the rebel flag.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring want the flag gone. They spoke out after the killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and the arrest of a white suspect who had posed in photos with the flag.

Opponents received a boost when the U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled 5-4 in a similar case from Texas that such state designs are government speech. The justices said Texas officials could refuse to issue plates featuring the Sons of Confederate Veterans' proposed design.

"Just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey 'the State's ideological message,' SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates," the majority ruled.

Should officials control what's posted on state-issued designs? Of course. Logos and slogans carry the state's imprimatur; it stands to reason the state at least tacitly approves such views.

The state has often intervened in such controversies. Previous news stories have noted that the Department of Motor Vehicles canceled, revoked or fought plates with "GOVT SUX," "DAT NIGA" and "ICUHAJI," to name a few.

This is a lot of agitation over a relatively few plates. A DMV spokeswoman told me last week that the commonwealth has 8.2 million active license plates; only 1,603 feature the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They are dwarfed by other specialty offerings.

Morally, however, the state simply shouldn't countenance the battle flag on its plates.

Backers are either ill-informed or disingenuous when they claim the flag is "heritage, not hate." The flag harkens to a war that was fought over slavery, white supremacy and subjugation of blacks. It was a relic until it was flown liberally by segregationists during the battle for civil rights.

No amount of revisionist history on the Civil War should obscure that the South committed treason and fought desperately to maintain control over a race of people. Just look at the writings and declarations of Southern officials during the period of the war.

John M. Coski is a historian at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, and he wrote a 2005 book, "The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem."

In a recently published excerpt, Coski's book cited comments from editors of the Richmond-based Southern Punch in 1864: "Our doctrine is this: We Are Fighting for Independence That Our Great and Necessary Domestic Institution of Slavery Shall Be Preserved, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork."

A June 22 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic collects the sentiments of Southern leaders during that era (tinyurl.com/CoatesArticle). They include this passage from Mississippi's declaration of secession: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. ... These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun."

Confederate battle flag supporters can always affix bumper stickers to their cars. S

Roger Chesley is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, where this editorial was first published.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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