Courtesy / Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
Perhaps it’s a sign of how desperate they are that the Sons of the Confederacy’s second attempt to get a Texas license plate honoring Confederate soldiers features as its sponsor Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, the clown prince of Texas politics.
Miller has been a constant embarrassment to the Texas Republican Party. There were the personal trips he speciously billed to the state as official business or to his campaign fund – one to Oklahoma to get a “Jesus shot” billed by a doctor (and only that doctor) as forever curing pain, the other to Mississippi to compete in a rodeo.
There were the outrageous social media postings, such as a cartoon showing a nuclear explosion, with the suggestion that it had worked with Japan and perhaps should be tried in the Middle East. Or the tweet on his official account calling Hillary Clinton a crude word for the female sex organ.
And there are the instances of his phony “news” stories such as a doctored picture of President Barack Obama holding a Che Guevara T-shirt. This was just one of 10 false postings by Miller or his aides found by the Texas Tribune over a two-year period.
Groups are required to get a state official to sponsor proposed license plates. It’s too bad the Sons couldn’t find a more respectable one. Theirs is, so far, a lost cause to celebrate the men they consider heroes of the Lost Cause.
The Sons lost their first battle when the board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles took up their application back in 2011. At first the board deadlocked 4-4 on the request, and decided to wait until then-Gov. Rick Perry filled a board vacancy to vote again. But after an outcry from the public and an apparent nod from Perry, the board voted unanimously to nix the plate.
“We don’t need to be scraping old wounds,” Perry said.
But the battle wasn’t over. The Sons sued on First Amendment grounds. Of course, the ancestors they celebrate went to war to keep 4 million slaves from having this and other rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But the First Amendment covers a multitude of sins, including both irony and hypocrisy.
(If you are one of those citizens who remember being taught that Texas’ entry into the Civil War was not about slavery, don’t make a public fool of yourself without reading the official reasons for secession as laid out in 1861 by the State of Texas. They are made clear in “A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.”
The license plate question is a close one. Does the state have the right to censor what is on its license plates based upon point of view? A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of the Sons of the Confederacy.
But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In an equally close 5-4 decision in 2015 it ruled that license plates amount to speech by the government, not by the citizens. And the government cannot be forced to publish views with which it disagrees.
The Sons can’t expect the new Supreme Court to overrule the earlier decision. The swing vote who joined the four liberal members three years ago wasn’t those justices' most frequent ally, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom conservative Brett Kavanaugh recently replaced. It was, surprisingly, the very conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
But the decision won’t be made at the Supreme Court. The high court did not bar states from celebrating the Confederacy on their license plates, and a number still do. It said they can’t be required to.
So the decision will be made by the current board of the Department of Motor Vehicles, a board appointed entirely or mostly by Gov. Greg Abbott. It has no black members.
Abbott has not taken a position on the proposed license plate. As attorney general, he supported Perry and the board’s position opposing the Sons in the Supreme Court case.
Abbott, however, has stood against removing statues honoring Confederate figures, suggesting that it is erasing history, albeit a history that “isn’t perfect.”
"If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it,” he said. “Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won't erase our nation's past, and it doesn't advance our nation's future. As Governor, I will advance that future through peace, not violence, and I will do all I can to keep our citizens safe.”
But Confederate statues and plaques, the naming of schools and streets after Confederate leaders, and license plates don’t teach history. They honor a one-sided version of history. If Abbott and the rest of our leadership really wanted to prevent the repetition of the past, they would actively push for a more complete, accurate, and instructive version of our history.
They would demand a school curriculum that not only taught such documents as the declaration of the causes of secession to which I linked above. It would be a curriculum that detailed the savagery of slavery, the capture and rendition of more than 1 million humans from their homes in Africa, the horrible conditions in which they were shipped and sold, the torture they suffered if they attempted to flee to freedom.
It would be a curriculum that taught that the concept that slavery is evil is not a modern notion, that nearly all civilized nations but the United States had outlawed it before our Civil War.
It would be a curriculum that fully taught how through the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups and through the actions of our elected officials in defiance of Presidents Lincoln and Grant and their agents, freed slaves were returned to virtual slavery by vigilante terrorism and by Jim Crow acts of the legislatures.
And, although this defies imagination, our civic societies would advocate for statues, plaques, and perhaps license plates that would celebrate other heroes of another lost cause. These are the freed slaves who rose up in leadership and white men and women who, as federal agents and as private citizens and church leaders, fought without success to promote the full citizenship of freed slaves and other blacks during Reconstruction.
Their reward: More than a few were murdered and others fled in fear. They were branded as carpetbaggers and scalawags and as traitors to their race.
If we honor the men who lost the war, we should also honor the men and women who lost the peace.