RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday that he will phase out a state-sponsored license plate featuring an image of the Confederate flag.
At an appearance in Richmond, the city that served as the capital of the Confederacy, McAuliffe (D) called the symbol “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful.”
The announcement comes in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of nine members of a historically African American church in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man who, according to police, wanted “to start a race war.”
It comes just one day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for the flag to be removed from the grounds of that state’s capitol — and the week after the Supreme Court ruled that Texas is free to reject a specialized license plate featuring the Confederate flag.
The court ruling throws into question an older decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which found that the plates are private speech. Virginia and Maryland have been under court order to offer specialty plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans featuring the flag insignia.
Virginia will continue to offer the plate but will no longer include the flag insignia. Those already on the road will be replaced, McAuliffe said.
Whether Sons of Confederate Veterans members will willingly part with the plates is unclear.
“I suppose just like in 1861, when armed representatives from the government come to take them away from me by force, I only have two choices: Take up arms like my ancestors did or comply,” said Frank Earnest, past commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“Right now,” he added, “I’m going to comply.”
McAuliffe said he has asked Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) and his transportation secretary, Aubrey Layne, to start the process of reversing the prior court ruling and replacing the current plates “as quickly as possible.”
“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,” McAuliffe said. “Even its display on state-issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people.”
The Supreme Court decision and the Charleston shootings have prompted a renewed, nationwide conversation about the Confederate flag. Also this week, retail giant Wal-Mart announced it would no longer sell merchandise featuring the emblem.
Wading into Confederate history can be tricky in Virginia, where people of all political stripes can be found touting the bravery of Confederate troops. Every Jan. 21, when the birthday of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson rolls around, the Virginia Senate adjourns for the day in his honor — with the blessing of Republicans and Democrats alike.
In Virginia, political leaders initially had been circumspect about what do to about the license plate.
When news of the Supreme Court ruling broke Thursday, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said any change would be up the General Assembly. Herring spokesman Michael Kelly referred questions to the Department of Motor Vehicles. A spokeswoman there said officials would review the ruling but also “defer to the legislature for direction.” Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said through a spokesman that he, too, was reviewing the matter.
But on Tuesday, McAuliffe described the change as central to his mission to boost Virginia’s economy, Herring said the move was long overdue, and Howell said he was on board with removing the image, noting that the legislature never wanted it on the plates to begin with.
In 1999, the General Assembly authorized Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates but prohibited logos and emblems on them. The group sued, and a U.S. district court ruled in 2001 that the restriction violated the organization’s First Amendment rights.
The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles challenged the decision, but a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s stance amounted to discrimination.
Virginia started issuing plates with the image in 2002, with about 1,600 on the road today.
The majority in the Supreme Court ruling held that the design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas would not simply reflect the views of the motorists who purchase it but would instead represent government speech.
Earnest has one of the plates on his truck and another specialty tag, honoring Gen. Robert E. Lee, on the van he uses for his Virginia Beach electrical contracting business. (Coy did not immediately respond to a question about whether there are any plans to eliminate the Lee plate.)
Earnest said the plates are not meant to convey a racist message but are meant to honor relatives who fought in the war, including Eusebius Fowlkes, whom he described as his “great-grandfather double first cousin.” Fowlkes died in 1862 at the Battle of Seven Pines outside Richmond. On Tuesday, Earnest visited a marker honoring him — his body was never found — at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.
“I’m not allowed by the governor of Virginia to honor him anymore,” Earnest said. “We’ve got a man who is not from Virginia and doesn’t understand Virginia history, and what that history means to those of us who are from Virginia.”
State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) said doing away with the flag insignia is pure symbolism at a time when serious work needs to be done to address the racism that authorities say fueled the Charleston rampage.
“If taking the flag off the license plates would solve the problem, I’d be all for it, but I think we need to look deeper,” he said. “This divide in the nation — that needs healing, instead of shallow political moves that politicians take. And then they walk away and say, ‘Problem solved.’ Unless we’re committed at really taking a hard look at why the horrific thing happened in South Carolina, we’re not willing do to the heavy lifting.”
In response to a reporter’s question, McAuliffe said he did not intend to tackle any other divisive symbols, such as the Capitol Square statues of Lee and former governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd, a segregationist.
“No, where I stand today is, let’s do the license plates,” McAuliffe said. “I’m not for changing any statues or anything like that.”