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Confederate license plate bid in Texas: How should Rick Perry respond?

Pressure is rising on Rick Perry to address a Texas agency's looming vote over whether to allow vanity license plates that feature the Confederate flag.

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The controversy over Perry's views about race and Confederate history — and what it says more broadly about attitudes in the South — goes far beyond license plates. The places where the flag controversy has been the loudest — Georgia, South Carolina and Texas — are also the three states that fought hardest against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, in 2006.

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"No matter what argument is made about the sort of history and respect for our ancestors behind the flag, there's also a very strong political sense in the South that these restrictions based on mistrust of southern politicians and treatment of minorities are due to expire, and are no longer necessary — and the Supreme Court may well agree with that soon," says Mr. Jillson.

Given those stakes, Mr. Givens, the SCV commander, draws a parallel to the decision by the NAACP in 1999 to have its boycott of South Carolina coincide with the South Carolina primary, where Republican presidential candidates were forced to contend with the question of whether the Confederate flag should fly on top of the Capitol building.

"What it boils down to isn't whether you like the Confederate flag or not, it's a freedom of speech issue," says Givens. "It's a matter of whether a group of people can limit other people's freedom of speech while Occupy Wall Street should be able to do whatever the heck it wants. We're all Americans, and it's simply expressing a viewpoint of a certain part of the American heritage that some people want to stifle."

Created in 1865 to help separate troops on the battle field, the battle flag became part of the SCV's logo when the group was founded in 1896. During the civil rights era, the Klu Klux Klan used the flag and wielded it alongside the US flag at rallies. In the 1960s, some southern governors used the flag as a symbol of intransigence against national civil rights legislation, which gave rise to much of the emotional antipathy against it today.

Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner who sponsored the SCV license plate proposal, says that criticism of the plate is nothing more than presidential politics and grandstanding.

But more than 22,000 people have signed a NAACP petition opposing the plates. The Wall Street Journal quoted senior NAACP vice president Hilary Shelton as calling the Confederate flag "one of the most commonly recognized symbols of racism not only in the US but throughout the world."

Meanwhile, in a recent op-ed, Matt Glazer, executive director of Progress Texas, pushed back. "Our actions on this issue began long before Gov. Rick Perry announced his presidential bid," Mr. Glazer wrote. "The public opposition to the license plate … shows that the opposition to this racist relic has nothing to do with politics."

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