Abilenians debate controversial Confederate Texas plates
By Brian Bethel
June 24, 2011
The possibility of a Texas vanity license plate sporting the Confederate battle flag has created controversy.
Supporters say that they wish to merely honor Texans who served in the Civil War, while others have a more visceral reaction to even the possibility.
Petty Hunter, president of Abilene's NAACP, was blunt in saying the concept was "tasteless and inconsiderate," given the suffering that characterized the "war to end slavery."
Abilene Christian University history professor Fred Bailey agreed.
"The issue of whether to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to have their logo on Texas license plates is a classic example of the continuing tragedy of the American Civil War 150 years beyond the event," he said.
But retired Army Colonel Alan Huffines, a member of the local branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that the organization simply wants the same consideration given other nonprofit organizations, ranging from 4-H to the Girl Scouts to the YMCA, which have already been approved for plates.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group that says it honors the legacy of family members who served in the Confederacy, is such a nonprofit organization, he said.
Huffines, who said the design is "long overdue," has been following its potential progress.
The state has yet to approve the plate, designed by the organization, though it was considered at a meeting in April.
There are no tax dollars involved "at all" in the design, something that Huffines said many do not understand.
Applicants provide designs for license plates, according to state guidelines.
"Where taxpayer support will come in is if it's rejected," Huffines said, explaining a lawsuit would be likely.
"It'll go to a lawsuit, and they'll lose," he said. "Every state that's attempted to block it has lost on First Amendment grounds."
Most recently, Florida adopted an SCV vanity plate after a judge ruled that the state acted unconstitutionally in rejecting a design approved by its motor vehicles department but blocked by its state Legislature.
Texas' Sons of Confederate Veterans "applied directly" to the state's department of motor vehicles to create the plate, said DMV spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes.
According to the DMV's website, nonprofit organizations may apply to create a license plate. Qualifying organizations must complete an application and submit an $8,000 deposit, refunded once 1,900 sets of an organization's license plates are sold or renewed.
The department of motor vehicles' board voted on the plate design and ended up with a split, 4-to-4 decision in April, Perkes said. One member was absent at the meeting, and the board's chairman suggested the plate be "reconsidered when a full board could be present," she said.
The next meeting was canceled because of the death of a board member.
"The chairman, Victor Vandergriff, has stated that probably the earliest the plate could be reconsidered is this fall," Perkes said. "We will not have a full board until the governor makes a new appointment, and we really don't know how soon that will happen."
Texas was the seventh state to secede from the union, with about 90,000 Texans serving in the Civil War, Huffines said.
"There's just no getting around the fact that Texas was part of the Confederacy, and for some of us, that was our ancestry," he said. "We're supporting our ancestry."
Robert Lilly, owner of Abilene's Know Thyself book store and a local activist, took a somewhat middle ground when examining the concept."I think people have the right to represent what they believe is their core identity," he said. "So if there's someone amongst us in this society that identifies with the Confederate legacy, that's their prerogative, no one can deny that."
And Lilly said that he has no personal problem with a person who comes from a family with Confederate ties saying to the world that they are connected to that piece of history.
"But I also think that they should be prepared to be honest in a discourse about what was really happening," he said, particularly on matters related to the question of slavery.
McMurry University history professor Don Frazier said that he didn't see "anything particularly wrong" with offering the plate, though he knew many people would take offense.
"The thing about the Confederacy is that it's ultra-complex," he said. "It doesn't fit very well onto a bumper sticker."
Frazier questions the vanity plate program in general, saying determining "what is a tasteful license plate symbol and what is not" was inherently fraught with difficulty.
"It becomes an inherently political process," he said.