This story was originally published in the April 13 print issue.
A new debate over an old symbol has reentered the national spotlight. On March 23, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. over the placement of a Confederate flag on Texas license plates. The case began less than a month before the 150th anniversary of the Confederate surrender in Appomattox, Virginia.
Though Northern Virginia is known for its diversity, confederate flags are still seen occasionally and many No.Va. residents have polarized opinions on the flag.
“My mom lives in a very rural southern Virginia area, I’ve only been there like twice, but each time we drive down there there’s like a confederate flag hanging somewhere, and I just think it’s really sad that, I mean, these people – they lost,” said junior English major Abigail Casas. “It just represents bad morals so if you’re going to get a license plate that represents kind of those same ideals, you’re for slavery pretty much – why would you want that license plate?”
This debate over symbols is not new to Mason. Especially on a diverse campus, opinions are shades of gray, not black and white. Senior Dylan Bates, of the Dialogue and Difference Project, has hosted several events, including “The Power of Words and Images,” on campus that seeks to discuss hot-button issues, similar to the debate over the flag.
“Changing a symbol’s power is incredibly difficult, especially when a symbol can be used in a variety of ways by a variety of people,” Bates said. One way to address differences in viewpoint is to engage in dialogue, according to Bates. The trajectory of a dialogue will depend on the intentions and positions of dissenting groups.
“That’s 101 on conflict resolution in general is understand someone’s purpose, someone’s reasoning and moving forward from that,” Bates said. He also pointed out that sometimes it is more important to identify those that are not engaging in a dialogue to determine a course of action. It is not a dialogue, in other words, if only one side is speaking.
Sons of Confederate Veterans had submitted a design to the Texas DMV to “raise money…for the state of Texas to keep up monuments” according to R. James George arguing on behalf of the SCV. The Sons of Confederate Veterans began in Richmond, Va. in 1896 and according to their website “continues to serve as a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.”
The state of Texas defended its decision to revoke the specialty plate, while the SCV appealed to overturn the initial ruling. The hearing centered mainly on whether the information printed on Texas state license plates constitutes “government speech.” The justices were divided over whether a person could reasonably infer that the license plates, bearing the state’s name, were government-endorsed speech, privately endorsed speech or a form of “hybrid-speech.”
Symbols of the Confederacy often draw negative attention from many who say the flag is a symbol of slavery and institutional racism. At the same times, others claim the flag represents the sacrifice of Southern soldiers during the Civil War, a sacrifice, which should be remembered in its own right.
While overt symbols of hate, like the swastika, are all but forbidden in public places, the symbol of a seceded South has maintained a complicated livelihood.
The Texas government has denied several license plates, such as those supporting the Pro-Life campaign and one Texas DPS Trooper’s Foundation Plate. The hearing explored reasons an approval board might reject a license plate; these extend beyond the threat of offense, though the specific grounds for disapproval were not made clear.
While this debate is taking place over Texas, many of the contested license plates are available to many students at Mason and any licensed Virginia driver.
According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, “Virginia offers more than 200 unique plates for our citizens” including “Tobacco Heritage,” “Choose Life” and even a Jimmy Buffet –themed “Parrotheads” plate. The Sons of the Confederacy is not the only Virginia plate that connects to the Confederacy; a General Robert E. Lee set is also available.
The Supreme Court is set to decide on the case by June.
Photo Credit: Amy Rose