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Mr. Johnson, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he’s not bothered by Civil War commemorative license plates generally. But he said Mississippi shouldn’t honor Forrest, who was an early leader of what he calls “a terrorist group.”

“He should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Johnson said of Forrest. “The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state.”

Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey, who handles license plate requests in the House, said he has no problem with SCV seeking any design it wants.

“If they want a tag commemorating veterans of the Confederacy, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Bailey, who is black. “They have that right. We’ll look at it. As long as it’s not offensive to anybody, then they have the same rights as anybody else has.”