AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he opposes his state allowing specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag — despite his past defense of the historical value of Confederacy symbols.
The Republican presidential hopeful was in Florida for a fundraiser and told Bay News 9's "Political Connections" and the St. Petersburg Times that, "we don't need to be opening old wounds."
The plates have been requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit Perry has supported over the years. They show the group's logo, which is derived from the Confederate battle flag.
A Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board must approve the license plate, but its nine members are Perry appointees. They tied 4-4 on a vote on the matter in April because one member was absent, and could take up the issue again next month.
It was the first time the governor has publicly commented on the proposed plate, with his office saying previously it was a matter for the board.
"This is great news," said Hilary Shelton, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Washington Bureau. "Perry should be commended. With this kind of attitude, maybe we can actually see the healing of the wound he mentions."
But it was a departure from Perry's past opposition to NAACP-led efforts to remove two plaques with Confederate symbols from the Texas Supreme Court building in Austin 11 years ago.
Then lieutenant governor Perry wrote to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in a March 2000 letter obtained by The Associated Press that, "although this is an emotional issue, I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques, and memorials from public property."
"I believe that Texans should remember the past and learn from it," Perry wrote in the letter, obtained through an open records request.
One of the 11-inch by 20-inch bronze plaques featured the seal of the Confederacy, and the other the image of the battle flag and quotations from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. They were eventually removed in coordination with the office of then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The floor of the Texas Capitol's rotunda still bears the seal of the Confederacy, and statues on the grounds memorialize Lee and Confederate soldiers. But civil rights organizations consider the battle flag the most objectionable symbol.
Perry's comments Wednesday come after has he drew sharp criticism for a rock outside the Texas hunting camp his family once leased that was painted with the name "Niggerhead." Perry's campaign says the governor's father painted over the rock to cover the name soon after he began leasing the site in the early 1980s — and says the Perry family never controlled, owned or managed the property. But rival Herman Cain, the only black Republican in the race, has said the rock symbolizes Perry's insensitivity to race.
Granvel Block, the Texas Division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Wednesday his organization will sue if its license plate is denied. He said the plate was a symbol of Southern heritage and only considered racist by groups like the NAACP — which he said stir up controversy to help fundraising efforts.
"It does kind of hurt me that (Perry) can't see the reality of where the problem is. It's not our plate, it's the opinion that's been forced on the people by others," Block said. He added of the board, "If they do vote it down, they'll be doing something illegal."
Progress, Texas, a left-leaning advocacy group in Austin, said it had collected 22,000 signatures urging the DMV to oppose the license plate. But Block said his organization has 2,500 members statewide and will spend $8,000 producing the plate.
Proceeds from its sale will be used to erect Confederate monuments once the group has recouped expenses.
"The only reason that it could possibly open up wounds is because the wounds have never been healed because they've been festering by others continuing to scrape them," Block said. "The NAACP is doing the scraping. It's not us."
Shelton responded that, "flying the battle flag in Southern states, it's the equivalent of flying a Nazi swastika in a Jewish community."