Pressure is rising on Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas to address a state agency's looming vote over whether to allow vanity license plates that feature the Confederate flag.
Civil rights activists, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a democrat, joined several Texas state lawmakers this weekend in opposing the introduction of a Sons of Confederate Veterans vanity license plate.
The proposed plates feature the SCV logo, which depicts the controversial battle flag flown by the Confederate Army – a flag Ms. Jackson Lee calls "a symbol of fear and intimidation."
The row comes only a few weeks after national media reported on the West Texas hunting camp Mr. Perry once leased with his father that included a racial epithet in its name. And is raising questions about Perry's views on race at a time when the pace of the 2012 GOP campaign has quickened and become more heated.
Perry is now running third in most GOP primary polls behind businessman Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Perry led the pack briefly in September.
"People are trying to draw a line to get people to say something to embarrass themselves and cause a ruckus," says Michael Givens, the commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is based in Columbia, Tenn. "Now, Rick Perry is up there and they want to embarrass him."
The SCV has successfully introduced similar vanity plates in nine states but has had to win several lawsuits to do so. In April, a Texas Department of Motor Vehicle board voted 4-4 on the SCV plate, setting the stage for a Nov. 10 vote when a previously missing member will cast the deciding vote.
Perry has yet to weigh in on the license plate issue, and he may well try to steer clear, says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.
"This is part of a series of issues that have raised the race card, and it provides a peg for people to raise questions," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, in Austin. "The best sense I have of Perry is that he is not a racist, that he's really quite emphatic in his belief in equality. But he also knows that a lot of people in his natural constituency are not necessarily racist, but are prone to be in favor of things like the symbolism associated with this flag. So while he'd like to keep his fingerprints off it, he's not going to lead a charge against it."
In his book, "Fed Up," Perry criticizes the motives of Southerners in the Civil War, saying that judging people on the basis of race is wrong. But he also makes another point: Using race to drive policy on any level is unacceptable.
"I think the Confederate battle flag would be an issue even if Rick Perry were not running for president, but it might not be so visible, given that other questions about his handling of matters of race are on the table," says Mr. Jillson at SMU.
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.
"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."