Are License Plates Confederately Correct?

Harper's Weekly, September 17, 1864

It should come as no surprise that the Sons of Confederate Veterans attributes yesterday’s unanimous decision by the Texas DMV as another attack on Confederate symbols and “Southern Heritage” more generally.  It may surprise you to learn, however, that the leadership of the SCV at the turn of the twentieth century likely would have viewed yesterday’s decision as a victory.

Spend even a little time in the history of this divisive American symbol and what clearly emerges is the extent to which both the SCV and United Daughters of the Confederacy struggled to prevent the trivialization of the Confederate flag.  They worked hard to both institutionalize and ritualize what historian John Coski describes as the “Confederately Correct” way to display the flag.  It’s not until the 1930s and 40s that the flag begins to gain wider appeal, especially on Southern college campuses, first in response to the popularity of “Gone With the Wind” and later in response to regional tensions over civil rights.  As racial tensions heated up in the postwar South the UDC did everything in its power to prevent the Dixiecrats from using the flag as the party symbol.  By the 1960s the flag had become the symbol of white supremacy throughout much of the region, including atop state capitol buildings.

The SCV and the UDC did not want nor did it need to turn their communities into a Mort Kunstler painting, where the primary goal is to see how many Confederate flags you can fit.  It meant more to them than that.  Perhaps such an effort was futile from the outset, but that doesn’t change the fact that the question of license plates or even whether the flag will be flown from every public light post in downtown Lexington, Virginia has little to do with heritage and history – at least not in the way the SCV and UDC originally understood it.  Rather, it’s just another example of the trivialization and commercialization of all things Confederate from the mass production of tacky trinkets to novelty items – especially those ugly Dixie Outfitters t-shirts.  It’s a mindset that regards, according to Coski, “every space as a potential billboard” and constitutes a direct threat to the very idea of the sacred.  What the SCV doesn’t realize is that every license plate push or unfurling of one of their “big ass flags” along a southern highway distorts and trivializes the very symbol they hold to be sacred.  They are their own worst enemy and the very thing the original SCV and UDC hoped to prevent.

31 comments… add one
  • Paul Renn Nov 17, 2011 @ 8:19

    Perhaps I’m one of the few northerners still fighting the civil war, but I am hard pressed to not be offended by the Confederate flag unless used in the context of re-enactments. No one can diminish the bravery or effectiveness of southern troops during the civil war, that record speaks for itself, however, as a symbol I find the Confederate flag offensive because it was used in the rebellion against the federal gov’t. The tired argument that the war was about states’ rights ignores the fact that the right in question was slavery and any other interpretation is disingenuous. With out a doubt there are many who will disagree with me and that’s okay because freedom of speech and thought are the foundation of our nation.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2011 @ 8:33

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Aaron Kidd Nov 12, 2011 @ 13:24

    Not allowing the liscense plates violates the right of the descendant to honr his Ansestor. I’m sure the first generation of Confederates would have wanted them, because it honors and represents the cause for which they fought.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2011 @ 13:26

      No one is preventing you from honoring your ancestors. Instead of whining on a computer get out there and do something to honor your ancestor.

      • Aaron Kidd Nov 12, 2011 @ 14:44

        I have and I forever will.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2011 @ 14:55

          OK..than it sounds like your problem is solved.

  • Jim Nov 12, 2011 @ 12:46

    But the South isn’t a snapshot in time. Southerners are a living breathing people who view themselves as part of a living tradition. Southerners didn’t vanish in 1865. To call them “wrong” for displaying symbols of their people is quite ignorant. Even their flag (among other symbols) has offended your delicate tastes, so what? In the soundbite age license plates, shirts, Dixie-ringtones, and so forth serve as tribal markers.

    • Ray O'Hara Nov 12, 2011 @ 15:56

      Blacks are people too, and Many are Southerners, the CBF isn’t there symbol.
      so just making the blanket assumption that all Southern people accept the CBF as “their symbol” is incorrect,. It is you who is trying to force an opinion on everybody else. and even in the 1860s not every White Southern was a Confederate. the US Army did quite well recruiting troops in the Southern States.

    • Michael Nov 12, 2011 @ 17:28

      Jim, you are correct. The “South isn’t a snapshot in time.” That’s why it’s puzzling to me that so much of Confederate apologist rhetoric and practice seems to not realize that the Civil War really is over. Honoring ancestors is one thing. But that’s not what wanting that flag to fly on public buildings at taxpayer expense is all about is it? It’s a refusal to recognize that the war is over and the Confederacy lost. The South is not “occupied” by the tyrannical North as some of the apologists like to state. And the apologists don’t constitute some loyal resistance to the mythical continued “Northern aggression.” You are also correct in stating that “Southerners are a living breathing people. . .” You ignore though that some of those people don’t view the issue as you do and they are every bit as Southern in ancestry, heritage and tradition as the battle flag waving apologists.

      • Jim Nov 13, 2011 @ 6:16

        As living breathing people, they can choose or not choose to fly it. I’d rather err on the side of free choice than against.

        Roy, don’t American Blacks have a green and black version of the Battle Flag? But like I said, Blacks or Whites or anybody offended by the flag don’t have to purchase or fly one.

        Michael, you seem to be putting a lot of words in my mouth. All of the straw men you knock down confirm this. I’m not here to rant about “occupiers” or anything like that. But if Southern folks choose to embrace their Confederate, Union, or whatever heritage I support it. If someone identifies more with the CSA than the USA then who are we to say they can’t? Postmodern America is witnessing the death of grand historical narratives. People are thinking outside of the designated historical tale and adding new viewpoints. In a deconstructed world people are identifying more and more with “forbidden” identities. So I’ll reiterate in case you missed it….to each their own. As a Yankee through and through I endorse this message.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2011 @ 6:23

          If someone identifies more with the CSA than the USA then who are we to say they can’t?

          I completely agree that individuals are free to believe whatever they want, but what is at issue re: license plates is whether government should be involved with its promotion. In the end, I am fine with whatever the people in their local communities decide unless they impinge on one’s First Amendment rights. We shall see whether this recent decision is, in fact, a violation of that right.

        • Andy Hall Nov 13, 2011 @ 6:51

          People are thinking outside of the designated historical tale and adding new viewpoints. In a deconstructed world people are identifying more and more with “forbidden” identities.

          Jim, if you’re referring to what’s commonly (and very imprecisely) as the “Lost Cause,” it’s not a new viewpoint at all. Indeed, the philosophical arguments about the legality of secession, the proximate causes of secession, the relatively benign nature of the institution of slavery (and its supposed tangential relationship to the conflict), the inevitable natural extinction of that practice, are all claims that were being made a century or more ago, almost word-for-word. Further, this historical narrative held great sway, even in professional academic circles, for decades. Aligning oneself with the Confederacy is hardly a “forbidden” identity, and it’s alive and well as a cultural phenomenon, maybe more so now than any time in recent decades.

          There are a few new variations in that hoary old narrative — “faithful slaves” are now “black Confederate soldiers,” for example — but what’s striking is how little has changed over the generations. If you read something out of the present-day Abbeville Institute, or the Kennedy Brothers, it might as easily be a passage from the Confederate Veteran, c. 1915. There’s absolutely nothing new there; it’s a very old tale. Whether one sees this as a reflection of eternal truths or simply the ossification of Confederate apologist thought, of course, is a subjective thing. 😉

        • Michael Nov 13, 2011 @ 9:25

          Jim, I did not put words into your mouth. The two phrases in which I quote you are designated as coming from you. The other two items with quotes around them are in reference to buzz-phrases that I’ve heard, ad nauseam, from Confederate apologists. I did not ascribe them to you. I ascribed them to said apologists. And at no point in the post did I reference *you* as an apologist. I hope this clears up your perception of my putting words into your mouth.

          That said, I most certainly did not miss what you said/meant about to each his or her own. I fully agree. But in case *you* missed it my quibble, as stated above is “. . .wanting that flag to fly on public buildings at taxpayer expense.” And for “buildings” you can substitute public installations of any type, including light poles.

          And that’s my opinion, as a person living in the North with deep Southern roots that include African slaves *and* white Confederate soldiers.

  • G. D. Smith Nov 11, 2011 @ 17:02

    The temporary setback handed the SCV by the puppets of political correctness was as big a waste of effort as Rick Perry’s flip-flop against the same group, in a vain attempt to bolster a dying presidential bid. The only thing accomplished was to hand the Texas taxpayers a legal bill for the time spent attempting to defend a position already been shown to be indefensible. 95% of the various polls taken showed the public’s approval of the SCV license plate, despite the libtard media’s attempt to shoot it down. And a third of the 9 states already offering the historical plate to its citizens tried to go the PC route, only to be taught an important lesson in the courts. The First Amendment demands that the SCV plate be allowed, a fact that all 9 members of the illustrious commitee ignored. One wonders if the same cries of injustice will be lifted to the heavens when the plate commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers comes to a vote. One wonders if any resistance will be exhibited at all by the same PC crowd who was so vocal against the SCV.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2011 @ 18:28

      Like I said, my guess is that the founders of the UDC and SCV would consider the decision by the Texas DMV to be a Southern Heritage victory.

    • Kate Halleron Nov 12, 2011 @ 8:32

      GD – you do realize that the First Amendment only allows you to express yourself freely? It does not require the government, state or federal, to provide the means for each and every person’s self-expression. Otherwise, there would have to be license plates for EVERY group or even individual opinion.

      Also, consult the US flag code for the respectful way to display flags – wearing them as clothing or as advertising is a sign of DISrespect, not respect. The flag code can be found here:

      If you really value Confederate heritage (although as a native born Southerner I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would), then the way most Confederate sympathizers treat the flag should incense you. A boycott of Dixie Outfitters should be in order, but I won’t hold my breath.

    • Michael Nov 12, 2011 @ 10:57

      GD, you seem to have parroted many of the proper buzzwords and memes of the apologists, e.g., “PC,” “libtard,” “First Amendment,” and the straw man of if-it-was-black-soldiers-being-honored-it-would-be-different. But did you bother to even read Kevin’s post, and can you address its focus, that being the wishes and intent of the original boosters of the Confederate battle flag and Confederate heritage?

      • Billy Bearden Nov 14, 2011 @ 10:55

        Well I don’t know Michael,
        I am sure I heard the channeling of Kieth Olbermann’s voice
        with a recent Kevin Post calling Mr Bill O’reilly “Billo”

        Try and keep the blog a 2 way street.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2011 @ 10:57

          Is that where it’s from?

          Try and keep the blog a 2 way street.

          Of course, Billy, since we all know that’s how you operate. 🙂

  • Woodrowfan Nov 11, 2011 @ 16:49

    some years ago I read a similar complaint in an evangelical Christan magazine about all the kitsch in Christian bookstores. The author complained that all the “Jesus junk” (coffee mugs, bracelets, bumper stickers, flags, hats, tshirts, etc etc) trivialized and demeaned Christ and Christianity.

    On the other hand, I have bobbleheads of Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson at my desk (all wearing Nats jerseys) so maybe I shouldn’t talk about kitsch. 😎

    • Ray O'Hara Nov 11, 2011 @ 20:12

      no group is more assailed with kitsch than Irish-Americans and the customers for all the embarrassing crap are Irish-Americans, put a shamrock on it and you have a best seller, the cutsey little drunken leprechauns are gold in the bank.
      People love kitsch. My Mother {bless her soul} would buy anything with the word Irish. It’s human nature, the stuff gets made because the stuff gets sold.

  • Edward Harvey Nov 11, 2011 @ 7:41

    Now I can’t stop looking at all the kitsch

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2011 @ 7:46

      Look Away, Look Away… 🙂

  • Andy Hall Nov 11, 2011 @ 6:30

    That’s a great point. The commercialization and trivialization is sort of the 800-pound gorilla in the room that’s studiously ignored by those who argue that the Confederate flag — all of them, but most especially the CBF — should be treated as sacred symbols.

    When you have self-described “Flag purists” like Billy who nonetheless find ways to rationalize that that part-time bus driver in Oregon, whose CBF emblazoned with “REDNECK” on it “is just as patriotic a symbol to the Webbers of the world as a US is to others,” it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s absolutely tribal — so long as it’s done in the name of Southron “heritage,” anything will get a pass. They will organize e-mail campaigns and boycotts against elected officials who vote against their wishes, but I’ve yet to hear of the Flaggers mobilizing to protest the people who actually make their living selling trash like this. Those people do far more damage to the symbols of the Confederacy than any city council or school board ever could.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2011 @ 7:02

      I completely agree. Once you go down that road there is no turning back. It seems to me that the early leadership of the UDC and SCV understood this. After all, their fight was focused mainly on the content of school history textbooks.

    • Billy Bearden Nov 14, 2011 @ 11:00

      Thanks much Andy!
      I am still a Flag Purist

  • Ray O'Hara Nov 11, 2011 @ 5:33

    Interesting , today Confederate kitsch has run amuck

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2011 @ 5:35

      Yes, but it’s part of a much broader commercialization and trivialization of the past throughout the country. The Confederate flag is but one small example. Here is some of what you will find at Gettysburg:

      • John Buchanan Nov 11, 2011 @ 8:25

        Oh. My. God.

        What’s next….a big metal tower and casino near by?

        Seriously, its demeaning and trivializes a momentous event in our history.

        • Ray O'Hara Nov 11, 2011 @ 16:40

          I liked that “big metal tower” the view was spectacular, I wish every battlefield had one. these are battlefields not religious sites, I go to better learn what happened .

          • John Buchanan Nov 18, 2011 @ 11:33

            Ray, are you referring to the monstrosity they got rid of or the 4 towers placed around the park by the US Army for use durign staff rides? I like the staff ride towers…hated that big War of The Worlds thing looming over all.

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