Barry Saunders

If you like your rebel license plate, you should be able to keep it

The eyes, Saint Matthew wrote, are the window to the soul.

Not so fast there, Matthew.

You see, turns out it’s not the eyes – it’s the license plates – that provide a true window to the soul. That’s why Gov. Pat McCrory should scrap his planned proposal to ban the Confederate battle flag license plates from North Carolina automobiles.

Sure, it’s the “in” thing to do now following the Charleston massacre, with the governor of South Carolina urging the battle flag’s removal from the State House grounds. Was it surprising that McCrory would do the same thing?

Heck, no. Here’s the deal, though: Those of us who aren’t fixing to run for re-election – and thus feel no desperate need to appeal to a more middle-of-the-road electorate after kowtowing to the extremists for two years – think North Carolinians should have the right to sport what they want on their license plates as long as it isn’t obscene. Even some of the obscene ones are OK if they’re clever, such as the one I saw yester- ... never mind.

Gov. McCrory’s spokesman, Josh Ellis, said the governor will propose that the state cease issuing plates with the Confederate battle flag emblem because of a recent Supreme Court free speech ruling and “the tragedy in Charleston.”

Not about free speech

The argument for allowing people to affix to their automobiles the adopted symbol of a defeated, mutinous government that suffered an ignominious defeat 150 years ago has nothing to do with freedom of speech. I say let them have the license plate because that makes it easier for the rest of us to know where they are and whom to avoid.

Keep the flag off of the Capitol grounds, by all means, but if a couple thousand recalcitrant sons of ... uh ... Confederate veteran sympathizers want to pay an extra $10 to show where their sympathies lie, what’s the harm?

None, if you ask Donald Collins, retired East Carolina University history professor and author of an acclaimed biography on Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

“I have always argued for compromise,” Collins told me Wednesday. “When you take something away from a person that he holds dear, you create an enemy. ... Years ago, when controversy arose about the Confederate monument on the Pitt County courthouse grounds, I argued for leaving it in place and adding there, or in some satisfactory place, a statue of a soldier from one of the state’s black regiments.”

‘Neither good nor evil’

Collins, who recently roasted me when he felt that I got something wrong about the Civil War and Confederate leaders, added “An object in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the person looking at it that sees what he/she wants/hopes to see. ... My own opinion is that one should look to see the reason that something, the flag, etc. was put up or how it is being used. If put up or used for racist reasons, take it down. ... In KKK hands, there is no doubt of (the flag’s) racist meaning. I hate its use by them as much as you do. If it were placed for other reasons, be it heritage, history, or whatever, let it be.”

Most of the 2,064 – that’s how many SCV plates have been issued since they hit the market in 1998, Steve Abbott of the DOT told me – people tooling around the state with their rebel flag license plates will insist that the flag is a symbol of heritage, not hate. Some may even believe that.

How are we supposed to know the difference? How about this: if I see someone with the flag on their pickup or Lamborghini and they flash a smile and a thumbs up, they’re cool.

If they flash a different finger, I’m in trouble and it behooves me to keep on truckin’.

Regardless of how you feel about the flag, many of us are never going to look at it again without seeing suspected terrorist Dylann Roof waving it and using it as his battle flag before the massacre of those nine people in Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Regardless of what the flag stands for to you personally, Roof has sullied it beyond redemption – if it wasn’t already.

Of course, as Collins said, not everyone who favors the flag is an unreconstructed rebel relic reliving the Civil War because he didn’t like the way it turned out the first time.

If I ever had any doubt about that, it was dispelled nearly three decades ago on the day I left Washington, D.C., broke, busted and disgusted after a business I’d started failed. I pulled up to a gas station on Highway 74 in Rockingham that night to get a honey bun, a Mountain Dew and $2 worth of regular.

Laugh if you want, but $2 in 1983 would actually move the needle.

After feeding the car and me, I tried to drive away. The car had other ideas and didn’t move. A couple of 50-ish white dudes leaning on a pickup truck in the station’s parking lot eyed me warily, and after a long while I heard one ask the other, “Why is he just settin’ there?”

Uh-oh, here comes trouble, I thought.

What happened next was unexpected. When they realized I was in distress, they came over, raised the hood and quickly figured out what was wrong. One of the men stayed with the car and me, the other went home to get his tools. These two dudes then set to work getting the car running and refused to accept payment. (I was secretly glad, being down to my last two farthings after my untriumphant return from the big city.)

Instead of paying them, one said to me, the next time I saw someone in trouble, I was to stop and help them. As we drove off in opposite directions, I noted that their pickup truck had the requisite rifle and rebel flag decal in the rear window.

For the longest time, unless given reason to think otherwise, that was the incident I thought of whenever I saw an automobile with the flag. After what happened last week, it’ll be impossible to associate it with anything other than Dylann Roof, with the flag plate on his car or waving it prior to the slaughter of unarmed worshipers who welcomed him into the fold.

Despite that, though, when it comes to the Confederate flag on North Carolina license plates, Gov. McCrory should reject the counsel of Saint Matthew and heed instead that of John and Paul – and ECU prof Donald – who said, “Let it be.”

Not, you understand, because we cherish the flag – but because we want to know those who do.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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