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Stop the license plate fad

By MARTIN DYCKMAN Special to the Times
Published March 2, 2007


A newly released film and book, both titled Amazing Grace, are timely to the unfortunate proposal for a Florida Confederate license plate. Anyone who doesn't know why needs to see the movie or read the book.

They recount the heroic struggle of William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, to abolish slavery in the British empire. He succeeded in banning the slave trade in 1807 and lived just long enough to see slavery itself outlawed 26 years later.

But over the preceding three centuries, as many as 15-million Africans had been dragged in chains from their homelands to produce the sugar, tobacco and cotton on which Britain, Spain, France and the American colonies prospered. Millions did not survive the journey, dying of disease or suicide aboard vessels into which they were packed like sardines, or thrown overboard to lighten the ship.

On arrival, they were branded like cattle with their owners' marks and condemned to hopeless lifetimes of slave labor, floggings, physical deprivation and rape. So were their children, who could be sold off like livestock.

This was genocide in every sense of the word, rationalized by racism indistinguishable from Adolf Hitler's. Unlike Britain, the United States was unable to end it peacefully.

"States' rights," the romanticized pretext for our bloodiest, costliest war, was claptrap. The "rights" the Confederate states arrogated were to continue owning, exploiting and trading other human beings, to expand slavery into the territories, and to destroy a nation in so doing. The South lost that war but won the peace with a century of racial segregation. The effects remain to be undone.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans propose their license plate as a symbol of their ancestors' heroism and sacrifice in a lost cause. But to millions of other Americans, white as well as black, the plate also extols one of the most offensive causes for which anyone ever bled. There are surely other, more appropriate ways of commemorating the Confederate troops, many of them poor men forced to fight a rich man's war, than by emblazoning the emblem of that war on a state's official license plate.

If the Legislature refuses, as it likely will, the sponsors would have a fine chance of winning an appeal to the federal courts under - what irony! - the great post-Civil War constitutional reform that eventually applied the Bill of Rights to the states. A very clear principle of the First Amendment is that the government cannot favor one person's speech over another's. That's why the Nazis were allowed to parade in Skokie, Ill., on the same basis as any other group. And in another Illinois case, recently decided and appealed, U.S. District Judge David Coar has ordered the secretary of state to issue a "Choose Life" license plate that the legislature refused to approve.

"When the government voluntarily provides a forum for private expression, the government may not discriminate against some speakers because of their viewpoint," Coar wrote.

Illinois' situation is distinct from Florida's in that their secretary of state already had the discretionary power to approve specialty plates. The more likely result of a Florida lawsuit would be to bar the state from issuing any other specialty plates, new or old, unless the Confederates get theirs.

And that would be a good result. The original purpose of license plates, still the only persuasive one, was to facilitate law enforcement. Each state's plate used to be so distinctive as to be identifiable from a hundred yards. The specialty plate fad is so far out of control that Florida alone has 59 promoting various causes, nine advertising professional sports teams and 36 for colleges and universities.

Let the Legislature call a halt. As Florida requires no front-of-vehicle plates, the sponsors could continue selling their own for placement there. They wouldn't have to share the message with the state's alpha-numeric system and they wouldn't need to split the revenue either.

But of course they would no longer have the state to market their messages for them. Some might call that a pity, but such ought not to be the state's business at all.

[Last modified March 2, 2007, 01:11:16]

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