Editor’s note: This story was update on Feb. 1. As of Jan. 1, 2021, the N.C. DMV is no longer issuing confederate flags on specialty license plates. The DMV “has determined that license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag have the potential to offend those who view them,” the department said in a statement.
When you’re renewing your driver’s registration with the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, you have the option to select specialty license plates. Designs represent a range of causes. A honeycomb-themed plate for Save the Honey Bee. A 49ers logo for UNC Charlotte. A confederate flag for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Emblazoned on the left-hand side of the plate, the flag is part of the logo of the SCV, a group with roughly 3,000 North Carolina members, all descendants of those who fought for the Confederacy. Anyone can buy the plates, which include a personalization fee of $30.
The SCV says the confederate flag is a symbol of regional and historical pride.
But for others, particularly Black Americans, it represents white supremacy and deep-rooted racism, a painful reminder of slavery.
The DMV began issuing the tags in January 1998, more than two decades before the latest calls for the removal of public displays of confederate imagery. North Carolina officials have considered doing away with the plates before. And they may consider doing so again.
“These license plates are troubling, and our office continues to examine the law and potential solutions,” says Ford Porter, a spokesman for Governor Roy Cooper.
Over the last few months, the DMV has received some concerns about the state-issued plate through social media, according to DMV spokesman John Brockwell.
DMV representatives emphasize that they’re not the ones making decisions about which license tags they issue. There are more than 200 causes and interest groups that have specialty plates. Any organization that wants to establish a special registration plate can submit an application for the state’s General Assembly to review.
“Only the N.C. General Assembly can create and make changes to specialty plates. DMV only issues the plates on request by the customer,” Brockwell tells the Agenda.
Within the North Carolina House, there haven’t been any discussions about the plates during the current session, says Representative Carolyn Logan, a Democrat who represents District 101 in northwest Charlotte.
“That is not saying that it will not be discussed at some point, more than likely not until the next session,” Logan says.
It’s a similar situation with the state senate.
“I would expect that when we come back into session in January there will be legislation filed to address this,” says Jeff Jackson, a Democrat who represents the 37th District, in Charlotte.
Former Confederate soldiers founded Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1896, nearly four decades after the end of the Civil War.
The group’s creation also came during the ascent of the white supremacy campaign in eastern North Carolina that led to the Wilmington massacre of 1898. The event ushered in further segregation and disenfranchisement starting in Wilmington, at the time North Carolina’s largest city where Black citizens had an outsized influence.
The confederate veterans themselves were getting old. They wanted their legacy and history to somehow live on, says Frank Powell, spokesman for the SCV in North Carolina. The group’s focus is education, says Powell, whose great-great-grandfather was a poor farmer from eastern North Carolina who fought for the Confederacy.
These days, the group spends a lot of its time on historical lessons during meetings, as well as on maintaining cemeteries and monuments, Powell says.
SCV also had negotiated with the UNC Board of Governors to take control of the “Silent Sam” statue on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2019, a year after protesters toppled the memorial, UNC donated Silent Sam to the organization, along with a $2.5 million trust for its preservation. A judge overturned the deal, meaning SCV must return the statue and the funds.
Powell sees the SCV’s use of confederate imagery as completely separate from that of hate groups. “Our flag has been misused by hate groups,” Powell says. “That upsets us just as much has anyone else.”
SCV does not avow white supremacy, Powell says, and is open to men from all backgrounds. Its members include a range of ethnicities, from white to Black to Native American and even Hawaiian members, he adds, all who fought for the South.
“You cannot change history. You’re supposed to learn from it — both the good and the bad,” Powell says. “Rarely is history pretty.”
The nationwide protests that followed the police killing this spring of George Floyd have called for an end to policy brutality and systemic racism. Also under the microscope are public representations of the confederate flag, as well as memorials to those who kept people enslaved.
Last week, crews removed a confederate memorial that had stood for more than 100 years in downtown Salisbury. City Council unanimously voted to remove the “Fame” statue, which they called a public safety hazard.
In a high-profile announcement last month, NASCAR said that it will start banning the confederate flag at all of its races and events.
Recently, Queens University decided to rename its main administration building, since its original namesake was a family that kept people enslaved. Gaston County is considering whether and how to remove a confederate monument outside the county courthouse.
“I know they say it represents heritage and history, but in the Black community, that represents hate and hostility, a time when things were not equal,” Chris Thomason, president of Gaston County’s NAACP chapter, told WFAE.
This isn’t the first time that there’s been debate over confederate flags on North Carolina license plates.
Back in 1997, the DMV resisted making the plates at all, arguing that SCV doesn’t qualify as a civic group eligible for the special tags. The group took the issue to court, and a divided state Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the state must keep issuing the tags. The state did not appeal the decision further.
According to an analysis by WUNC, North Carolina drivers bought 4,873 of the plate in its first seven years, ranking it as the No. 5 most popular specialty plate in that time.
“Lawmakers now should ponder whether other groups that have a symbol objectionable to some citizens — a swastika, perhaps, or a hammer and sickle — may qualify for a special tag as well. They will have ample opportunity in 1999 to reconsider the wisdom of having created so many special tags, and figure out how to revise the criteria for inclusion,” the Charlotte Observer‘s editorial board wrote in January 1999.
Over the years, demand for the plates has fluctuated. In 2015, the same year a white supremacist killed nine Black people at a Bible study in Charleston, the popularity of the plates actually surged. That year the DMV issued 1,697 of the Sons of Confederate Veteran plates, according to data from the division provided to the Agenda. (So far this year, the DMV has issued 195 of the plates, according to the division. Last year, it issued 413.)
Days after the Charleston shooting, activist Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole at the State House grounds in Columbia and removed the confederate flag. Soon after, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said the flag should be removed permanently.
At the time in North Carolina, then-governor Pat McCrory pressed the N.C. General Assembly to stop issuing the plates that featured the little image of the confederate flag.
This move was both in light of Charleston, and in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling, which essentially said Texas could reject a proposed design that includes the confederate flag on license plates.
“I’m old school,” McCrory tells the Agenda. “I believe that we should fly one national flag and sing one national anthem.”
Senate leader Phil Berger instead said the issue was up to the governor’s office to address. The SCV, Berger said, is a “civic group” under state law, so it doesn’t need approval for the plate, the Observer wrote at the time. That is true, but lawmakers could craft legislation requiring legislative approval before it displays the confederate flag.
Neither Berger nor House Speaker Tim Moore responded to a request for comment.
After the debate five years ago, the issue mostly fizzled.
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