published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Georgia's new Confederate tag stirs emotions

Georgia officials are releasing a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, infuriating civil rights advocates and renewing a fiery debate. The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that the state issue the new plates. A spokesman says it meant no offense and that people have a right to commemorate their heritage.
Georgia officials are releasing a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, infuriating civil rights advocates and renewing a fiery debate. The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that the state issue the new plates. A spokesman says it meant no offense and that people have a right to commemorate their heritage.

AT A GLANCE

Nine states in the Southeast offer Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

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The state of Georgia has released a redesigned specialty license tag that features the Confederate battle flag, inflaming civil rights advocates and renewing a debate on what images should appear on state-issued materials.

The specialty tag for the Sons of Confederate Veterans has stirred a clash between those who believe the battle flag honors Confederate heritage and those, particularly blacks, who view it as a racially charged symbol of oppression.

"As far as that flag is concerned, that represents the Confederate soldier," said Civil War re-enactor John Culpepper, of Chickamauga, Ga.

Culpepper, who's a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said racists misused the battle flag during the turmoil of the civil rights era.

He sat by and "let these people abuse my ancestor's flag," Culpepper said. "But we did have a Civil War and that flag was used in the Civil War, and to me, that's what it represents."

Dony Suttles, who recently stepped down as president of the Whitfield County, Ga., branch of the NAACP, doesn't think the tag should have been approved.

"Of course it's not appropriate," said Suttles, who wasn't aware of the redesigned plate until a reporter called. "If I had the opportunity, that would have been something I would have fought against. Stuff like that, it just seems like it never ends."

Georgia is one of nine states in the Southeast that offers Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates.

What's causing controversy is that the entire background of Georgia's redesigned plate features a faded-out Confederate battle flag. The previous plate featured a smaller flag -- the same size as a plate's numerals and letters -- that's part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo. The new tag adds the organization's name across the bottom of the tag, where the name of the issuing county typically appears.

The Motor Vehicle Division of the Georgia Department of Revenue approves proposed designs for specialty plates.

The state approved the redesigned plate on Feb. 1 after rejecting two previous submittals from the Sons of Confederate Veterans that violated copyright provisions, revenue department spokesman Nick Genesi said.

One of the rejected tag designs had a background of the carving on Stone Mountain, Ga., of three Confederate heroes on horseback. At roughly 3 acres, the Stone Mountain carving is the nation's largest Confederate memorial.

"Silver Dollar City which has leased the [Stone Mountain] Park from the state of Georgia claims to have the carving trademarked and refuses to allow other entities to use it," the Sons of Confederate Veterans wrote in a news release. "At present, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has challenged the right of any private corporation to trademark a symbol which belongs to the people and state of Georgia and is considering further action to void the trademark claim."

Gov. Nathan Deal said the new tag was a surprise to him.

"I hadn't heard that so I don't know anything about it. I'll have to talk to them about it. I had no information in advance about it," said Deal, who last month vowed to an Ebenezer Baptist Church congregation that he would give Martin Luther King Jr. a more prominent place on state Capitol grounds.

In a related context -- applications for vanity plates submitted by individuals -- Georgia law charges the motor vehicle agency with exercising discretion when it comes to racially sensitive matters. The law prohibits vanity plates judged to ridicule any race or ethnicity.

The state also denied a 2012 request by a Ku Klux Klan chapter to "adopt" a highway in North Georgia to help clean it. The chapter then sued the state.

The state sold a total of 439 of the earlier tag version in the last two years. There are 35 orders already for the new tag, according to the revenue department.

The cost of the tag is $80. Ten dollars from the fee goes to the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group said it uses the money to promote education efforts and preservation of statues, monuments and other historic items.

Tennessee has offered a Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate since 2004, and the state sold 1,118 of the tags that cost $56.50, or $91.50 if personalized, in the most recent fiscal year, according to Kelly Nolan Cortesi, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Revenue.

Passions aroused by the Confederate flag remain a potent force in Georgia politics. When Gov. Roy Barnes brought down the 1956 state flag, which had the emblem as its centerpiece, the backlash contributed to Sonny Perdue's surprise election as governor.

Elsewhere, states that joined the Confederacy have taken different postures in regard to the symbol. Texas rejected an application to issue one on the grounds that it would offend many residents.

The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued board members of the Texas motor vehicle agency, and the case remains in the courts.

A spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said Tuesday that the state should not have sanctioned the battle emblem to appear on a Georgia tag.

"To display this is reprehensible," Maynard Eaton said. "We don't have license plates saying 'Black Power.'"

For their part, the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it meant no offense. People have a right to commemorate their heritage, and the state would be discriminating if it rejected the group's application, spokesman Ray McBerry said.

"By sanctioning the plate, they are not saying they agree with our organization. They're just saying it's a level playing field," he said.

McBerry, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was unfazed by the renewed controversy over the battle flag. "We believe that everyone has the right to preserve their heritage," he said. "Southerners have as much right to be proud of their heritage as anybody else."

Eaton, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said issuance of the tag confirms his belief that the state government is indifferent to the 31 percent of Georgia residents who are black.

"It's a slap in the face," he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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