By WILL WEISSERT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Eleven years ago, when the NAACP stepped up a campaign to remove the Confederate battle flag from statehouses and other government buildings across the South, it found an opponent in Rick Perry.
Texas had a pair of bronze plaques with symbols of the Confederacy displayed in its state Supreme Court building. Perry, then lieutenant governor, said they should stay put, arguing that Texans "should never forget our history."
It's a position Perry has taken consistently when the legacy of the Civil War has been raised, as have officials in many of the other former Confederate states. But while defense of Confederate symbols and Southern institutions can still be good politics below the Mason-Dixon line, the subject can appear in a different light when officials seek national office.
For Perry, now Texas governor for 11 years and in the top tier of Republican presidential candidates, a racial issue is already dogging him.
He took criticism over the weekend for a rock outside the Texas hunting camp his family once leased that had the name Niggerhead painted on it. 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, says the rock symbolizes Perry's insensitivity to race.
A related issue may rise this fall when Texas decides whether to allow specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag. The plates have been requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit organization Perry has supported over the years. A state board he appointed will decide.
The NAACP says its initiative against "glorification" of slave-state symbols remains ongoing. "The romanticism around the Old South," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau. "It's a view of history that ignores how racism became a tool to maintain a system of supremacy and dominance."
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner did not return messages seeking comment on the matter. But Granvel Block, the Texas Division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the organization appreciated Perry's position on such issues.
"I would give him high praise for saying it," Block said. "Honoring your ancestors, it's something that the Bible teaches."
The Confederate battle flag has been chief target for the NAACP. The organization called for a boycott of South Carolina in 2000 for flying the banner over its statehouse. The state moved the flag to a capitol memorial. In 2003, Georgia replaced its state flag, which included the Confederate battle standard, with one that combined other elements from previous state flags. Other institutions have scaled back their displays of Confederate heritage. The University of Mississippi retired Colonel Rebel as its on-field mascot.
In January 2000 the NAACP asked Texas to remove the Confederate battle flag from plaques in the entryway of a building housing the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, saying it undermined the notion of judicial equality. 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.
Perry wrote to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in March 2000 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 also believe that communities should decide whether statues or other memorials are appropriate for their community," Perry wrote in the letter, one of several obtained by The Associated Press under a public information request. "I believe that Texans should remember the past and learn from it."
He added, "We should never forget our history, but dwelling on the 19th century takes needed attention away from our future in the 21st century."
Perry elaborated publically on the issue, saying, "I think you've got a slippery slope when you start saying we're going to start taking down every plaque or monument."
He wasn't the only prominent Texan defending the plaques. Then-Gov. George W. Bush, himself running for president, initially said they should remain but then reversed himself and authorized the state's General Services Commission to replace the plaques with new ones saying equal justice is available to all Texans "regardless of race, creed or color."
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.
Public officials in Texas, as well as in the other Southern states, are called upon periodically to honor Confederate causes because related organizations observe its anniversaries. Block said the Sons of Confederate Veterans was founded in 1896 and has 2,500 members statewide. Also active is the Texas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In a 2005 letter, Perry welcomed attendees of a benefit hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "By learning about the past," he wrote, "we honor our ancestors' memories and contributions, and appreciate the people and events that preceded the present." Perry's great-great-grandfather David H. Hamilton fought at Gettysburg with the First Texas Infantry.
Two years later, Perry issued a "Message from the Governor" honoring Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross on what would have been his 169th birthday. He noted Ross' service as a Confederate brigadier general, two-time Texas governor and president of what became Texas A&M University, calling him "one of the greats on whose shoulders our modern day Texas rests." The Sons of Confederate Veterans maintains a college scholarship fund in Ross' honor — despite accusations that Ross was behind the murder of black prisoners of war in Mississippi.
Today, Block's organization wants to use the Confederate flag license plate to raise money to pay for markers on Confederate soldiers' graves. "I know that to some people it's an issue," he said. "But our purpose is to honor our ancestors and to educate the public on the true cause of the war."
The state Department of Motor Vehicles board tied 4-4 in an April vote because one of its members, Ramsay Gillman of Houston, was absent. Gillman then died and Perry chose a new appointee, Raymond Palacios Jr. of El Paso.
Palacios declined to comment on the issue. Members won't vote on the plate until at least Nov. 9. A similar request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans was denied two years ago, but the criteria have been expanded, opening the door for approval this time. Texas has approved 276 specialty plates.
Perry hasn't commented. "This is a matter before the board," said Lucy Nashed, a governor's office spokeswoman.
Matt Glazer, executive director of Progress, Texas, a left-leaning advocacy group, said of Block's organization: "If they want to put a sticker on their car, or fly the Confederate flag at their home or business, that's up to them. But the state itself should not associate itself with this racist relic."