Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday he’ll find a way to rescind license plates that bear the Confederate battle flag emblem, wading into a thorny debate over the state’s history as the anti-Confederate backlash spread beyond South Carolina, site of last week’s horrific church shooting, and threatened to engulf more symbols of Civil War heritage.
In Washington, top senators said it’s time to consider ditching Confederate-based sports nicknames and ousting statues of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president, from prominent public spaces across the country. More retailers announced they’ll stop selling merchandise with the Confederate battle flag emblem too.
On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, urged her legislature to remove the Confederate flag that flies on a monument to the state’s Civil War soldiers after the accused gunman from last week’s shooting was tied to white supremacist groups and a photo of him with the Confederate flag surfaced online.
Mr. McAuliffe said Ms. Haley’s decision paved the way for him to make a move in Virginia.
“Although the battle flag is not flown here on Capitol Square, it has been the subject of considerable controversy, and it divides many of our people. Even its display on state-issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people,” the Democratic governor said.
His targets were the more than 1,500 commemorative plates issued to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a heritage group whose emblem, which appears on the plates, includes the battle flag.
Earlier court decisions had said the SCV had the right to use its emblem, but Mr. McAuliffe asked Attorney General Mark R. Herring to revisit those decisions in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling that found Texas could refuse to issue license plates with the Confederate flag. The governor also directed Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne to develop a plan for replacing the plates “as quickly as possible.”
Former U.S. Rep. Ben Jones, chairman of Heritage Operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said attacks on the flag and Confederate heritage are misplaced, pointing out that he grew up in a black neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia, during the Civil Rights movement.
“This is like cultural cleansing in China or something …. It just flies in the face of free expression,” said Mr. Jones, who is famous for his role playing “Cooter” Davenport on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, which featured a car named the General Lee emblazoned with the Confederate flag and with a horn that played the first notes of “Dixie.”
“McAuliffe is a clown, and that’s the nicest way I can put it,” Mr. Jones said. “He doesn’t understand the South. He’s never lived, as I have all my life, with black people, who are my friends and who I love.”
A spokesman for Mr. McAuliffe said the governor believes making the state more open and welcoming to all walks of life is “essential to building a new Virginia economy.”
“Mr. [Jones’] response to the governor’s actions today is a pretty good indication that he’s heading in the right direction,” spokesman Brian Coy said via email.
State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, said Mr. McAuliffe made the right move, and said the flag has become a flashpoint that runs far deeper than Civil War heritage.
“The Confederate battle flag has become the symbol for numerous hate groups, flown proudly by those who traffic in racism and bigotry,” Mr. McEachin said. “Whether or not that was the original ‘meaning’ or ‘intent’ of the flag, at this point, it has no place in the public sphere.”
The debate over the flag has raged for years, both in Virginia, where the license plates were approved nearly two decades ago, and in South Carolina, where the banner was taken from atop the Capitol and relegated to a position on the grounds in 2000.
But last week’s shooting has put a target on the broader world of Confederate heritage.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his home state of Kentucky should consider ousting a statue of Davis from its Statehouse grounds, saying the only connection the Confederate leader had was being born there — and pointing out that Kentucky never even seceded.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, said the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, should consider ditching its sports nickname of the “Runnin’ Rebels,” which had Confederate heritage origins, even though the university cut those ties decades ago.
Davis has become a particular target, though statues of other Confederate leaders dot the South, usually erected in the decades after the Civil War, with plaques from grateful residents praising the soldiers who they believed tried to defend their homes against what they saw as Northern aggression.
In Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital, the debate over those kinds of emblems has raged for decades.
The 1999 debate over the license plates turned heated, with the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanding a new hearing to protest after the plates had initially been approved by a committee.
The NAACP’s chief testified against the plates, but the SCV brought two black men to testify in favor of their Confederate flag emblem, including Nelson Winbush, a Florida man and member of the group, whose grandfather had fought for the South.
“This is probably the most misunderstood flag in the whole world, because people are ignorant of what it represents and why it was designed,” he told the legislative committee.
Lawmakers approved specialty plates for the SCV — but prohibited them from including their emblem with the battle flag. The group sued, claiming a violation of First Amendment rights, and a federal court upheld their challenge, forcing Virginia to issue plates with the emblem.
The balance between Southern heritage and the more unsavory aspects of the Civil War is ever-present in Richmond, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures memorialized along Monument Avenue.