Court to decide fate of license tags

February 16, 1997


Staff Writer

Joseph Bach of Hagerstown proudly displays the Confederate flag embedded on the license plate of his Chevrolet Camaro.

Bach is not, he says, a skinhead, a member of the Ku Klux Klan or any other hate group.

As a descendant of Civil War veteran Johnson Pettigrew of North Carolina, Bach, 54, says he is merely displaying a symbol of his heritage.

The flag is the official logo of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which, along with 235 other nonprofit organizations, got specialty plates through the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration .


"We're all proud of our ancestry, no matter what side they fought on. We're all Americans," Bach said.

Four people in Washington County and seven in Frederick County have obtained the specialty plates, MVA spokeswoman Marilyn Corbett said.

Last month, in response to a complaint from a state legislator, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration said it would revoke the tags of all 78 Sons members.

But like their ancestors, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not going down without a fight.

Citing their First Amendment rights, they have taken the battle to U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where Judge Frederick Smalkin must decide the case.

The tags will not be recalled, pending the outcome of the court case.

Opponents say the Confederate flag has no place on a state-issued license plate.

"Anybody who goes out and advocates my genocide doesn't have a right to do that," said Willie Mahone, a black activist in Frederick, Md. "They're talking about a heritage of hatred."

The state has a moral obligation not to be a "proponent of racial segregation," Mahone said.

The Rev. Alister Anderson of Frederick, Md., defended the plates.

Anderson, a retired Army chaplain who served in World War II and Vietnam, has Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates.

"To call our ancestors racist and say we're a hate group is really a profound lie," he said. "It's not fair and it's just not true.''

The group spends its time learning about history and honoring the sacrifices of their ancestors, they say.

Some say hate groups have co-opted the emblem used to distinguish Southern troops during the Civil War.

"It disturbs us just as much as it does the black groups and all other decent Americans," said Patrick Griffin III of Darnestown, Md., the lieutenant commander-in-chief of the national organization.

Mahone disagreed.

"We know what that flag generally stands for," he said.

If the government is willing to target the Confederate flag, Griffin wonders what symbol will be next.

"That's really the scary part. What symbol will no longer be acceptable?" he said.

For two years, group members drove around with the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates and no one said a word.

"I've been all over the country and I've never had anyone come up to me and say, `That's racist,'" Bach said.

Dennis Frye, president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites Inc. in Hagerstown, said he believes the flag is an issue of expression.

"The flag, like any flag in history, is a symbol. It has particular meaning and that meaning is entirely up to how an individual views the flag," Frye said.

Other people believe the whole issue has been overblown.

"Symbols don't mean a thing," said the Rev. Philip Hundley of Hagerstown. "My interest is in bringing people together, not dividing. It's just foolishness and ignorance. The main issue now is how can we get above this."

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