BILOXI, Mississippi | Sat Feb 12, 2011 10:21pm EST
BILOXI, Mississippi (Reuters) – A Mississippi proposal to issue a state license plate honoring a Confederate general believed to be a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan has stirred protest and resurrected the state’s ugly racial past.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed that Mississippi issue a specialty plate honoring General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who many historians say was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group that terrorized blacks in the South after the Civil War.
Forrest is the only individual they want to commemorate. All the other plates would be in remembrance of battles that took place in Mississippi or Confederate veterans as a whole.
The proposal must be approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Haley Barbour.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a letter to Barbour on Friday saying it would be immoral and unconstitutional to honor a KKK leader.
“We are asking the governor to stop this action immediately. Every fair-minded southerner knows that the Civil War was a negative time in history and having a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan on the back of vehicles will only tarnish the state’s image,” NAACP state president Derrick Johnson said.
The KKK was a secret racist group active after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Wearing White robes and masks, KKK mobs sometimes lynched blacks without trial.
This license plate controversy comes just months after Barbour, a Republican, told a weekly magazine that he does not remember the 1960s civil rights struggle in his hometown in Yazoo City as being “that bad.” Barbour later clarified that he had not intended to condone segregation in the South.
Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that honors Confederate heritage, wants the state to issue the series of license plates to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Mississippi Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey, who handles license plate requests in the state House, said he has no problem with the organization creating any design it wants.
“If they want a tag commemorating veterans of the Confederacy, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Bailey, who is black. “As long as it’s not offensive to anybody, then they have the same rights as anybody else has.”
Mississippi has allowed over 100 different specialty license plates, which range from the innocuous — such as wildlife conservation and NASCAR auto racing — to more controversial such as one opposing abortion. Specialty plates are available to anyone in the state, usually for a fee of $30 to $50 per year. All designs have to be approved by the state government.
(Reporting by Leigh Coleman; Editing by Greg McCune