Dead Confederates roil the University of Texas. Confederate battle flags on state license plates argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. And, Great Ghost of John C. Calhoun, bills on nullification of federal laws are pending in the state Legislature. It’s hard to believe April 9 will mark the 150th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
Texas officially hung on until Major General Kirby Smith signed articles of surrender on June 2, 1865, in Galveston. But the spirit of that conflict lives on today in our politics and was evident on at least two fronts this past week.
At the University of Texas at Austin, more than a quarter-century of conflict over a statue honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis resurfaced as the UT student government passed a resolution to have him removed from campus. The statue had been controversial in the early 1990s when the slave-owning rebel leader had slogans spray-painted on him such as “Racism ends at home.” The UT administration had hoped then that ill feelings about the Civil War icon would be soothed by the erection of statues honoring civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and African American congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas.
Davis rose again recently as two candidates for the student government leadership made removal of the statue a key issue in their campaign. President-elect Xavier Rotnofsky said the statue creates a “negative campus climate” and should be removed to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The Daily Texan reported that in an almost unanimous vote, the student government passed a resolution favoring Davis removal.
“It goes without saying that [Davis’] legacy continues to affect us today,” Vice President-elect Rohit Mandalapu said. “This statue serves as a permanent reminder of the atrocities committed against fellow humans.”
Over at the Capitol, where there are multiple monuments to the Confederacy, including the 1910 memorial to the Texas Brigade pictured above, there are several pieces of legislation that hark back to U.S. senator John C. Calhoun’s 1832 argument that states can nullify federal law. However, the current Texas legislation over nullification—SJR 59 by Senator Donna Campbell and HB 98 state representative Dan Flynn—hardly deserve discussion. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 ruled that attempts by state and local officials to nullify federal law amounted to a “war against the Constitution” and cannot be accomplished by an official “without violating his solemn oath to support it.” These bills are political jingoism that at best can cost the taxpayers money in an extended lawsuit with an ultimate result of being declared unconstitutional.
Just one day before the student government voted to rid UT of Jefferson Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a question of whether the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles violated the free speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans by refusing to authorize a state license plate featuring the group’s logo, which includes the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and its “Southern Cross.” The Sons say the flag merely honors ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.
State officials have said they did not authorize the license plate as part of the state’s specialty plate program because the battle flag is offensive. If the state loses, it may discontinue the specialty plate program altogether.
That might not be a bad thing. The program started as a cute way to raise a little extra money for state agencies and universities by selling specialty license plates. My wife used to have one of the Parks & Wildlife horny toad plates, a critter that a Fort Worth university calls Horned Frogs but the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, with apparent little regard for Texas tradition, calls the Horned Lizard plate. Now, there are more than 150 specialty plates available, not only for state agencies and Texas colleges but also for charities, businesses, and out-of-state universities. There apparently is only one boundary—no Confederate flags.
Out of 56 plates for colleges and universities, 27 are for out-of-state institutions that get a cut of Texas sales. You also can buy plates for a soda pop, a burrito chain, and a hamburger chain, as well as two real estate companies. All the plates have to be approved either by the Legislature or the motor vehicles board. The state’s licensed vendor, My Plates, in the past five years has generated $27 million in general revenue for the state. The charity plates sold through the state program provide the charity with $22 for each plate sold, while $8 is retained for administrative costs.
While the university license plates are relatively harmless, I have to wonder whether the state should look like it is endorsing one hamburger chain over others. The Native Texan plate dedicates revenue to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to help maintain historic sites. Since 1994, there have been 26,751 Native Texan plates sold, raising $595,000, according to the DMV. Now the state has fired the Daughters group as manager of the Alamo, and the DRT is suing the state over the Alamo’s library holdings.
And then there are the license plates with potential political connotations. One features the coiled snake of Don’t Tread on Me, an iconic American Revolution image that has become a symbol of tea party Republicans and was featured prominently in Governor Greg Abbott’s past two campaigns for office. Another is the defiant Gonzales Come and Take It cannon, an image that has been co-opted by gun rights activists.
One plate in particular has generated controversy: the Calvary Hill or One State Under God plate featuring three crosses. In its first year, there were 560 Calvary Hill plates sold, generating about $60,000 in revenue, with a portion of the money going to a Nacogdoches faith-based charity. To some, the plate looked like a state endorsed religion. So far, no groups have applied for specialty plates featuring a Star of David or a Muslim crescent moon, but imagine the controversy if a Muslim nonprofit does seek a plate.
Ironically, the DMV board approved the Calvary Hill plate at the same time it was rejecting the Confederate flag plate.
The DMV board rejected the Confederate flag plate on grounds that it has racist connotations. The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the DMV violated free speech rights. The state contends the plate is state speech and not individual speech. Those who want a deep dive into the case can find the briefs at the SCOTUS Blog.
Over the years, I’ve heard a number of white descendants of Confederate veterans describe the red flag with its blue cross and white stars as a symbol of Southern pride and a remembrance of their ancestors. The battle flag originally was designed by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina so commanders could tell Confederate troops from federal troops. Miles originally made the cross upright, according to historian John M. Coski, but turned the cross on its side to satisfy some Jewish Confederates and Protestants who did not want to follow a Christian religious symbol into battle. Miles said the sideways cross was a symbol of heraldry, not religion. But Texans have always been Texans, and they brought their own flags to the war.
This was the flag of the First Regiment of Texas Volunteer Infantry, the unit in which former Governor Rick Perry’s great-great-grandfather served. The wife and daughter of secessionist U.S. senator William T. Wigfall of Texas sewed this flag, and the white part is believed to be from Mrs. Wigfall’s wedding dress. On the bloodiest single day in American history, the flag fell into Union hands after the First Texas lost 186 of its 226 men in a cornfield near Sharpsburg/Antietam. The regiment also lost its mascot, a small white dog named Candy who had traveled from Austin to Virginia with the soldiers. When the monument to the Texas Brigade was dedicated on the Capitol grounds 48 years later, survivors forgave Candy for surrendering to Yankee hardtack, but they could not forgive themselves for losing the flag.
Many regimental flags from the Civil War no longer remain, historian Robert Maberry told me, because Confederates tore them up and kept pieces as souvenirs rather than surrender them to federal forces. Maberry, a professor at McMurry University in Abilene and author of Texas Flags, said the Army of Northern Virginia flags by the war’s end were in widespread use among Texas regiments, although they often were decorated with large stars to represent Texas. The actual Confederate battle flag, like the one on the Sons’ proposed license plate, was square, he said, while the modern version used by segregationists is a rectangle.
“Many of Texas’s most distinguished Civil War Regiments fought under, and their veterans revered the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag. The seal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans–and by extension the controversial license plate design–displays the image of this famous battle flag. The square Southern Cross pattern represents a completely historical, and from this organization’s point of view, appropriate choice to honor its members’ ancestors. Their argument that the design is about ‘heritage not hate’ has some validity.”
The problem is not so much in the flag’s shape as much as what the image has come to represent. For anyone who believes the Civil War was not about maintaining slavery, may I recommend a reading of the Texas Ordinance of Session.
For decades, Confederate veterans honored the Northern Virginia flag to recall their service. But when college students brought the modern “Southern Cross” into the State’s Rights Party convention in 1948, “the moment announced the marriage between the flag’s emerging pop-culture status and its ideological roots,” wrote Coski. “The Confederate battle flag was the chosen symbol of people dedicated to defending states’ rights as a means to preserve a social order founded upon white supremacy.” (Coski, incidentally, is the historian for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. We’re not talking wild-eyed liberal here.)
What of the Sons of Confederate Veterans? Is it really a heritage organization dedicated to preserving the Lost Cause? The group had honored individual soldiers for bravery in action, and in 1989 passed a resolution denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis for using Confederate symbols such as the flag to promote racism. But it also played a part in fights to keep the Southern Cross as part of state flags, and between 2002 and 2006, the group had a major internal battle over its direction. The Asheville, North Carolina, Mountain Express covered the fight extensively. One member of the Sons’ old guard wanted to maintain the organization as one that honored the war dead.
“I thought it was time to take the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Aryan Nation boys and show their butts to the door.”
The new faction described the old guard as “bed-wetters” who were “afraid of their shadows.” They wanted to expand the presence of the battle flag, and one way to do that was on state license plates. Among the leaders of the new faction was a former Texan named Kirk Lyons, an attorney who had ties to the Aryan Nation and former Texas KKK leader Louis Beam. Lyons denied being a racist or a white separatist, but he pushed the Sons to take a more activist roll in politics and urged the filing of more lawsuits, not unlike the one against the Texas DMV. In 2003, Lyons told the newspaper:
“I have never claimed that I’m a white supremacist,” Lyons emphasizes. “I have never claimed that I’m a white separatist. I never claim to be anything but this: I’m a Christian and I am an unreconstructed Southerner from Texas. That’s the only thing I have ever claimed to be. Ever.
“That means that I did not surrender. Appomattox was halftime; war’s not over, because the issues underlying that war are still here today. My Confederate ancestors fought to prevent the nightmare government that we have now—that does not respect civil rights, that does not respect personal liberties and is becoming more and more a centralist dictatorship.”
Lyons is a University of Texas graduate who received his law degree from the University of Houston. Former Texas Monthly senior editor Dick J. Reavis wrote an interesting profile of Lyons for a North Carolina publication. Lyons has remained active in Texas in ongoing battles over Confederate symbols on the state Supreme Court building. Lyons claims much of the criticism of him is a smear.
Even if you take the Sons at face value, that they are about heritage and not hate, their flag image is hurtful to the African American descendants of slaves. There are Confederate flags such as the Bonnie Blue Flag or the Stars and Bars that do not have the emotional baggage of the Southern Cross. They could easily change their logo to one that is less offensive—unless offending is what they want to do.
The war ended 150 years ago. The Army of Northern Virginia battle flag does not belong on Texas-sponsored license plates. And if a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Sons’ free-speech claim kills the state specialty plate program, that may be for the best—otherwise, I may be left wondering why a state-sponsored license plate is endorsing a particular brand of burritos.