The Confederate license plate debate

In this 1999 photo, “Cooter,” actor Ben Jones, sits atop one of the cars used in the show “Dukes of Hazzard” as a fan sits in the drivers seat in front of Jones’ store in Sperryville, Va. Reruns of the show have been pulled off the air amid controversy over the Confederate flag, which appears on the roof of the car. Jones, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, objects.

Few motorists in the Carolinas have Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates, which bear an image of the Confederate battle flag, but their numbers jumped after several states announced plans to ban or recall such tags.

In North Carolina, where the governor wants to stop issuing SCV plates, a spike in requests for the license tags sold out the state’s supply. In South Carolina, where there’s no plan to eliminate SCV plates, there was also a jump in orders in June, which increased the number of active SCV plates statewide by about 5 percent.

“We can’t run out because they are printed as they are requested,” said Beth Parks, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

Despite the surge in orders for the specialty plates, which help fund the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they are not very popular amid the many license tag options offered by South Carolina. More people have specialty plates supporting amateur radio or highway beautification.

In Charleston County, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, just 62 of the more than 330,000 vehicles in the county had SCV license plates in 2014, when The Post and Courier obtained the county’s motor vehicle tax records. More drivers had Boykin Spaniel Foundation tags.

The license plates, however, have proved controversial outside of South Carolina as part of a larger debate over Confederate flags, statues, street and school names, and merchandise, including children’s toys.

In Virginia, the governor wants to eliminate license plates bearing the battle flag. Maryland stopped issuing SCV plates, and lawmakers hope to recall the fewer than 200 on the road.

“As Governor Hogan has said repeatedly, the Confederate Flag is a divisive symbol and he is against its use on Maryland license plates,” Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, a spokeswoman for the Maryland governor, told The Baltimore Sun newspaper.

Ben Jones, spokesman and heritage director for the national Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, said it’s not surprising that more people have been requesting the license plates, now that some states might refuse to issue them.

“It’s only a big deal if it’s a right that’s been denied, when they say, ‘you can’t have this,’ ” he said. “It’s a massive, gratuitous insult.”

Criticism of government-supported displays of the Confederate battle flag erupted following the June 17 killings in Charleston of nine black men and women at a prayer group inside Emmanuel AME Church. A racist manifesto attributed to alleged killer Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old, surfaced after the shooting, along with numerous photos showing him holding Confederate flags and visiting Confederate memorials in the days before the massacre.

Large retailers including Walmart, Sears and Amazon responded by banning sales of Confederate flag merchandise. South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove a long-controversial Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“I think everyone was trying to stay focused on the flag at the Statehouse, and keep it at that,” said Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, head of the Black Caucus. “I don’t think (SCV license plates have) been an issue in South Carolina.”

On Thursday, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, issued a statement saying that the vote to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds ended the discussion.

“The South Carolina House of Representatives will not engage in or debate the specifics of public monuments, memorials, state buildings, road names or any other historical markers,” he said.

When public property is involved, lawmakers hold the decision-making power, and license plates now fall under that umbrella because of a decision in June by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I expect them all to disappear,” Jones said. “These states now have the Supreme Court on their side.”

On June 18, the day after the church massacre, the nation’s highest court ruled against the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which had sought to compel Texas to issue a specialty license plate. The court, in the 5-4 decision, said state-issued license plates are a form of government speech — essentially a state endorsement — and Texas didn’t have to issue SCV tags.

South Carolina state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, co-sponsored the legislation that made Sons of Confederate Veterans license tags available in South Carolina 10 years ago. He said he disagrees with the Supreme Court’s conclusion that license plates amount to government speech.

“We just make them available,” he said. “I would not support prohibiting a citizen from choosing that vanity tag.”

“I don’t see anybody, on either side of the aisle, wanting to head in that direction, and that’s another way South Carolina has stood out in its handling of this tragedy,” Campsen said. “There’s a big difference between a flag flying on the Statehouse grounds and a license plate with an organization’s symbol or a television show that’s been okay for decades and is suddenly not okay.”

Jones, a white former Democratic congressman from Georgia, has a unique view of the flag debate. In addition to his role with the national SCV he’s the actor who played the mechanic Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, which aired from 1979 to 1985. Jones runs several stores that sell toys and memorabilia from the show, and Confederate-themed items.

Amid the flag debate, reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard” were pulled off the air by TV Land, and Warner Brothers said it would stop licensing merchandise featuring the iconic car featured in the show, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger called the General Lee with a large Confederate battle flag painted on the roof. Just 10 years ago, a national survey found that the General Lee was the most popular television show car ever.

“The friendliest, most benign family show ever, removed from the air?” Jones said. “It’s a very Orwellian thing that’s happened.”

Jones, who said he was jailed, and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan, while fighting for civil rights in 1960s North Carolina, finds all this baffling and insulting.

“I can honestly say (the flag) does not mean racism to me,” he said.

While Jones feels his heritage is under assault, the controversy has been good for business at his stores and on his website, just as it boosted orders for SCV license plates in the Carolinas.

“People are coming and buying my stuff out,” he said. “I think I’ve sold 2,000 to 3,000 Confederate flags in the past few weeks.”