A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans says it wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of what it calls the “War Between the States.” The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014.
“Seriously?” state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. “Wow.”
Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading the 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Greg Stewart said he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It’s a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.
State Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said legislators would have to approve a series of Civil War license plates. She said if every group that has a specialty license plate wanted a redesign every year, it would take an inordinate amount time from Department of Revenue employees who have other duties.
Robert McElvaine, director of history department at the private Millsaps College in Jackson, joined the Facebook group. McElvaine said Forrest’s role at Fort Pillow and involvement in the Klan make him unworthy of being honored, even on the bumpers of cars.
Mississippi lawmakers have shown a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward allowing a wide variety groups to have speciality license plates, which usually sell for an extra $30 to $50 a year.
The Department of Revenue allowed the group to revise the license plate this year for the first of the Civil War sesquicentennial designs. The 2011 plate, now on sale, depicts the Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
SCV wants license plates to feature Civil War battles that took place in Mississippi. It proposes a Battle of Corinth design for 2012 and Siege of Vicksburg design for 2013. Stewart said the 2015 plate would be a tribute to Confederate veterans.
Johnson, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he’s not bothered by Civil War commemorative license plates generally. But he said Mississippi shouldn’t honor Forrest, who was an early leader of what he calls “a terrorist group.”
“He should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden,” Johnson said of Forrest. “The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state.”
“If they want a tag commemorating veterans of the Confederacy, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Bailey [Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey, who handles license plate requests in the House], who is black. “They have that right. We’ll look at it. As long as it’s not offensive to anybody, then they have the same rights as anybody else has.”