A federal appeals court ruled last Monday that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles could not bar the sale of specialty license plates featuring a Confederate flag.
In a 2-1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas violated the Sons of Confederate Veterans group’s First Amendment rights when it rejected its application for the license plate in 2011. “By rejecting the plate because it was offensive, the board discriminated against Texas SCV’s view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage,” the majority wrote.
The plate features the group’s logo, a Confederate battle flag framed on four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” It also has a faint image of the Confederate flag in the background.
NAACP Texas State Conference president Gary Bledsoe said in a statement, “It marginalizes American citizens and permits people to remind us daily that we were slaves and ancestors of the plate bearers owned our ancestors.”
Nine other states, including Alabama, have license plates featuring images of the Confederate flag, all designed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Invocation of Confederate pride and identity accompanied white resistance to civil rights and racial equality during and following Reconstruction, at the height of the civil rights movement, and well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
More than a generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began asserting their social and cultural dominance by embracing a revisionist history that portrayed the Civil War as a conflict in which the Confederate cause was heroic, honorable, and deserving of tribute. The conflict was recast as one unrelated to the institution of slavery, and the lesson of the Civil War as well as the suffering of generations of enslaved Black people was lost. This myth ignored the true brutality of that time period and distorted our national memory of the intermingled links between American slavery, the Civil War, and race.
The claim to Confederate pride re-emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in efforts to assert defiance in the face of a new threat: the growing civil rights movement. Southern white resistance to the civil rights movement on the national stage often shrouded itself in references to the Civil War and the Confederacy’s “bravery in the face of federal tyranny.”
In a not-so-subtle statement of continued Southern commitment to white supremacy, Confederate veterans groups enjoyed renewed interest after World War II and into the 1950s and 1960s, and new groups were formed. In 1959, the Texas chapter of the Children of the Confederacy erected a plaque in the Texas state capitol building which insisted “the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
Efforts to recast the Civil War and its origins have continued, as last week’s decision highlights. In 1996, Alabama state senator Charles Davidson supported a bill to fly the Confederate flag atop the state capitol building in Montgomery, asserting that slavery was a “family institution” and “civilizing influence” that gave slaves education and the Christian religion, for which “those converted Black Southerners are most grateful today.”
The legacy of slavery, emancipation, white supremacy, and revisionism in the South, and throughout this nation, continues to shape discourse about racial history and impede progress toward honest and hopeful engagement with the past.