NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The number of Tennesseans now displaying Confederate battle flag license plates is higher than at any other point in the last decade, according to state data on the controversial specialty tags.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans plate, the proceeds from which benefit the organization's Tennessee division, has been issued by the state since 2004.
At the end of the 2018 fiscal year in June, 3,273 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates were active in Tennessee, a number 72 percent higher than at the end of the 2015 fiscal year when the display of Confederate flags was thrust into national debate.
The flag became a point of deep division and conflict following the June 2015 killings of nine African-American parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dylann Roof, a then-21-year-old who had posted online a photo of himself posing with the flag and who cited racial animosity as a motive, was convicted last year in the deadly mass shooting.
South Carolina's legislature voted weeks after the shooting to permanently remove the battle flag from statehouse grounds, a decision that preceded the removal of 110 Confederate symbols nationwide since the Charleston attack, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The number of Tennesseans displaying SCV tags steadily increased in 2016 and 2017, according to data provided by the state to USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, before peaking in the last year.
Data on the number of active plates from 2004 to 2007 wasn't immediately available.
According to the Department of Revenue, there are 5.6 million registered passenger vehicle plates on the road in Tennessee, meaning the SCV tags account for less than a tenth of a percent.
Why are more Tennesseans ordering Confederate license plates?
James Patterson, commander of the Tennessee Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he suspects the increase in motorists ordering the plate can be attributed to the organization's focus on promoting the initiative amid "all the anti-Confederate rhetoric that's been going on" surrounding monuments and flags in public spaces.
"Every time that some of our history that we're so proud of has been attacked, people have gone out, and probably some members who had license plates but quit renewing have gone back and put them back on their vehicle," he said.
Patterson, of Murfreesboro, said he has the SCV tag on four of his vehicles.
What do Sons of Confederate Veterans do with license plate revenue?
Sales of the plates serve as a source of revenue for the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Tennessee division, including helping fund their ongoing legal fight against the city of Memphis, Patterson said.
The organization sued the city in January after Memphis sold public land to a nonprofit in order to take down statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
According to the Department of Revenue, the Sons of Confederate Veterans received approximately $57,700 from the plates in the 2018 fiscal year.
Of the $61.50 annual fee, $35 is allocated to the plate's respective beneficiary, the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Highway Fund.
Depending on whether the plate is new or being renewed, the beneficiary's share of that $35 is between $15.85 and $17.50.
Patterson said the money SCV receives primarily goes toward the erection of Confederate monuments on private property, cemetery restoration projects, as well as helping fund the Tennessee State Museum's conservation of Civil War artifacts.
An example of SCV's work in recent years with the state museum, Patterson said, was the $12,000 restoration of an overcoat that belonged to Sam Davis, a Confederate soldier from Rutherford County who was hanged by Union troops.
Efforts to ban Confederate license plates in Tennessee have failed
As the debate surrounding Confederate symbols – including state-issued license plates – unfolded nationwide in 2015, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam joined the chorus of politicians in some Southern states calling for change.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Haslam told reporters he supported discontinuing the Tennessee license plates featuring the flag.
But when Democrats days later introduced legislation to do just that, the governor's office eventually backed away from the effort, placing a "fiscal flag," said Haslam's press secretary Jennifer Donnals, on a bill introduced by Democratic state Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis and Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville.
The legislation, which Donnals said had a fiscal impact not represented in the budget, would have prohibited the issuance or renewal of Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates.
Kyle said she appreciated Haslam's remarks at the time, but the sentiment didn't translate to action.
"He said the right thing, but there wasn’t any effort from him or his administration to support my legislation," Kyle said. "As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even get it heard. There was no interest in my bill being heard at the time."
She described the SCV license plates as "symbols of hate" and said she would reintroduce the bill next session.
In the meantime, Kyle said she also plans to talk with attorneys at the General Assembly on how to prevent funds distributed by the state through the license plates from being used by an organization like SCV to sue a city.
"I just think that it's wrong that people apply for these license plates through the state, the state collects these funds, and the way the Sons of Confederate Veterans then get a hold of those funds and use them to sue a city, my city, Memphis, is wrong," she said.
In response to questions about whether Haslam believed the license plate should continue to be issued and if he considered the Confederate battle flag to be a symbol of hate, Donnals said "the governor's position on this has not changed."
Haslam "feels that the Confederate battle flag and Confederate monuments are divisive, Donnals said, "and it would be more appropriate for those symbols to be displayed in museums."
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