Gov. Nathan Deal backtracks on Georgia's Confederate license plates, now wants a redesign

Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he wants a redesign of a state-sponsored license plate featuring the Confederate flag emblem, as a growing list of other Southern governors call for similar changes.

The Republican stopped short of calling for the Sons of Confederate Veterans tags to be phased out or eliminated entirely, as the leaders in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee announced Tuesday. He said the redesign, though, would seek to eliminate the bigger visage of the flag that covers the background of the entire tag. The change, he added, wouldn't require legislative action.

"It's an effort to not let this become an issue in Georgia," he said, adding: "It's time we take a further look at it."

The license plate has become the focus of debate in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of nine worshippers at a historically black church in Charleston by a white suspect who told police he wanted to "start a race war."

Earlier Tuesday, Deal said he wouldn't support any changes to the license plate and contended that both he and his Democratic opponent Jason Carter said during the campaign they didn't have a problem with the license plate.

"And my position hasn't changed," he said in that initial interview.

Within a half-hour of those comments being published, his aides asked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to return to his office to outline his plans for a redesign.

(Carter said during the campaign that drivers had the right to sport the emblem as an expression of free speech. He tweeted Tuesday that the plate should be replaced with one honoring the civil rights movement.)

Deal is the latest Deep South governor to call for significant changes to Confederate license plates. Virginia's governor said Tuesday that he wants to phase out a similar license plate in that state, calling it "unnecessarily divisive and hurtful," and Tennessee's governor also said he favored the emblem's removal from some tags. North Carolina's governor plans to do the same.

And the Supreme Court last week ruled that Texas could continue to ban the Confederate flag from specialty plates it issues.

About 3,500 motorists have signed up for Georgia's Confederate tag. Deal defended the Department of Revenue's decision in 2014 to authorize the plate, calling it a "part of a cultural heritage of our state." The decision infuriated civil rights leaders, including one who said it would be akin to issuing a "Black Power" plate.

The Charleston shootings have only intensified the scrutiny. More than 1,800 people have signed a petition released Monday by Better Georgia, a left-leaning advocacy group, calling for the state to stop selling the plates.

"Following the brutal killing of nine black people in a South Carolina church by a racist terrorist, it's time to put that symbol of rebellion and racism behind us and move toward healing," it reads.

One of the signers is Janice Hall, a 68-year-old retiree who lives in Buckhead. Hall, who is white, said there's nothing the government can do to erase deep-seeded racism but "at least it can make sure we don't throw it in peoples' faces."

"It's not about heritage. And even if it is, I don't think it's something we should be celebrating," said Hall. "Maybe they can put it in some racist museum. It's what we were, but it's not what we are."

Deal's call for a redesign comes a day after one of his top deputies tried to use South Carolina's embrace of the Confederate battle emblem for a leg up in the competitive jobs hunt with its neighbor. The Rebel flag still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, though Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders have called on lawmakers to vote to remove it.

The timing of the redesign is unclear, though Deal said his office would work with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others on the particulars.

Deal said there's a "big difference" between a Confederate emblem on a state flag and one on the license plate.

"When you display a flag, it's seen by everybody and it's considered a symbol of a larger context of who is supporting the display of a flag," he said. "An individual license plate is just an individual's choice as to what they want to put on their vehicle."

Georgia resolved its fight over a state flag that incorporated the Confederate battle emblem in 2001 — though it helped cost Gov. Roy Barnes his job and Democrats control of the state’s machinery. Deal said Tuesday he was grateful that debate was settled back then.

"It helps that we're not having to confront that issue in the climate that South Carolina has to confront it," he said. "I'm just glad that we don't have to contend with that issue now."

For more coverage of the license plate debate, read the AJC's in-depth premium story right here.

About the Author

In Other News