Do you, as an American citizen living under the protection of the First Amendment, have the right to whatever license plate you choose? Or, seeing as how the plate is an official symbol of the state government, should your right to free speech be curtailed? That’s the question before the U.S. Supreme Court right now in the case of Walker vs. Sons of Confederate Veterans.
At issue is a Texas state license plate bearing the Confederate battle flag. Oral arguments began Monday in the case, and already it seems that the justices are leaning towards censorship. “Your position is that if you prevail, a license plate can have a racial slur. That’s your position?” asked Justice Anthony Kennedy of the lawyer representing the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The lawyer affirmed that he was arguing just that. “I don’t think there’s any consistent position otherwise,” said James George Jr. He insisted that the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring messages even if they happen to be offensive.
By taking this position, George and his clients hope to force the Supreme Court into making a landmark decision that would protect anything and everything a person might hope to put on their license plate. It’s a bold strategy, but it’s one that could have been avoided in this particular instance. Symbols of the Confederacy – most specifically the flag – have long been associated with racism and hatred. But a powerful argument can be made that there need be no such association, at least not automatically.
Re-Learning Our History
The Civil War is one of the most widely misunderstood events in American history. Most of the stories that weave the tapestry of our nation’s narrative are similarly simplified, but there is a political bent to our understanding of the Civil War that is missing from many of the others. We have come to see the South as a hotbed of slavery and racism, fighting for the right to treat blacks as property. In truth, slavery was common to all American colonies, North and South, and every slave ship that sailed the sea did so under the flag of the United States of America.
Union hero Ulysses S. Grant was a slave owner himself, having married into a family that made abundant use of unpaid African labor. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, remained a slavery apologist throughout the Civil War. The Grant slaves were not freed until Missouri abolished the practice in 1865.
Slavery provided one of the primary catalysts for the Confederate secession, but defenders of the South are not whitewashing history when they claim that the war was about states’ rights. Hundreds of thousands of Southern patriots died not for the right to own slaves but against the tyranny of an increasingly powerful federal government. That their descendants wish to honor their sacrifice is in no way a defense of racism or slavery. It is a moving tribute to the ideals of the Confederacy, those being independence, small government, and freedom.
Sadly, there’s no denying that the Confederate battle flag has been abused and misused in the years since. It has been flown by racists. Then again, so has the American flag. We should refuse to let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, and we should refuse to let ignorance color the truth of history.