Raleigh, N.C. — As a renewed debate over the Confederate battle flag smoldered across the South this summer, Helen Anderson got online and – for the first time in her life – sent a message to the governor.
Hours earlier, Gov. Pat McCrory's office told reporters that the "time is right" for the Division of Motor Vehicles to stop offering specialty license plates bearing the insignia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, given a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and the massacre of nine black South Carolina churchgoers by a white supremacist.
In her brief email to McCrory on June 23, Anderson contended there was nothing racial about the Confederate battle flag and questioned the attempt to "rewrite history."
"Who knows what you're going to change next?" Anderson wrote. "The more you cater to this complaining bunch, the more they are going to gripe."
She reiterated those concerns when reached by phone at her home in Hudson, N.C., last week.
"I think people have the right to be able to, if they want to, put that on their tag," Anderson said. "I feel like they're trying to take our rights away from us a little bit at a time."
In email after email, released by the Governor's Office as part of a public records request, hundreds of people expressed similar viewpoints in messages criticizing McCrory's stance on ending the license plate emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag.
While hundreds of people wrote to support the governor's move, they were vastly outnumbered by those who opposed it.
That outcry may not matter much: State lawmakers and the governor have pointed at each other for the next step in taking the tag off the table, and months after the conversation began, there's been no real change.
Emails show division over SCV plate
In the almost month-long period between June 19 and July 15, the period covered by WRAL News' record request, the Governor's Office received more than 600 messages about the Confederate battle flag. That doesn't include any of the automated messages from three Internet petitions on the issue.
The volume of comments didn't raise any eyebrows in the Governor's Office, according to McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis.
"We get a lot of feedback on a number of issues, and I think this is in line with that," Ellis said in an interview in August.
Most of that feedback is tracked through correspondence logs maintained by the governor's communications staff. For the three-month period from April to June, the log indicates McCrory's office received an average of 935 messages a month. That included dozens of routine messages such as requests for proclamations and nominations for the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
But not all of those who emailed the governor about the Confederate flag were included in the log, meaning it doesn't capture the total number of people who contact the governor every month. That makes the volume of feedback on any one issue hard to compare to the norm.
Ellis added that ample media coverage from all over the country may have also contributed to the number of messages.
Records show that, on June 23, the day McCrory said he wanted to see the SCV license plate discontinued, more than 100 people contacted him about the issue.
That included 26-year-old Jaron Benson of Clayton, who, like almost everyone who emailed that day, opposed the governor's statements.
"Here I am today losing my freedoms because one race of people wants to make us law-abiding white citizens pay for something that happened over 150 years ago," Benson wrote. "You were put into office to see to the prospering of all citizens, not just black people!"
Benson, who is a descendant of Confederate veterans and a Civil War re-enactor, said in a phone interview that removing the SCV plate would be denying a history that belongs not just to Southern states, but to the rest of the country as well.
"Any time you ban a flag or a symbol, you're not doing anybody any justice," he said. "It only has power when you put power behind it."
But to 44-year-old Christian Burris of Winston-Salem, that power is already there. He was one of hundreds of people to write to McCrory using a form letter in support of a bill that would ban the display and sale of Confederate battle flags on all government property.
"The flag represents a deeply shameful period for our nation, and the harmful, hateful effects of that time are still felt today by African-Americans and the nation as a whole," the letter read.
In a phone interview, the native North Carolinian said he sees the battle flag as one of the most "divisive symbols in the country."
"For me, when I see the Confederate flag, it does not inspire any element of Southern heritage in me," Burris said. "What it says to me is that, 'I feel you're not welcome here.'"
Anne Taylor of Archer Lodge said she sympathizes with that view. In her letter to the governor – sent before McCrory even came out against the SCV plates – she said it was sad the flag had become a symbol of hate to many after its adoption by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, "but it is a fact."
"Many people may feel truly deeply about the heritage aspect, but there's no question it is a symbol not only of racism, but of horrid acts against people," Taylor said in a phone interview.
Government speech vs. free expression
For many who wrote the governor, banning the Confederate flag plate was tantamount to clamping down on free speech.
"Your planned act of censorship will only serve to put you in the same company as Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis," Diane Rufino, leader of the Eastern North Carolina Tea Party, wrote in an email to the governor on June 25. "A country that truly values its freedom doesn't have leaders that pursue a course of action as the one you wish to pursue."
In a phone interview, Rufino said the debate over the plate was different than the removal of the battle flag flying over the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. She supported that decision, she said, because it was government speech rather than a more personal decision to display the plate on a vehicle.
If the government is involved in specialty plates at all, she said, they should allow everything or nothing.
But the U.S. Supreme Court this summer found just the opposite.
In a 5-4 decision, handed down just days before McCrory made his comments on the plates, the majority found that the state of Texas could reject a specialty plate design from the Sons of Confederate Veterans because it amounted to government speech.
To Burris, that forms the core of his own opposition to the license plate produced by the North Carolina DMV.
"What individuals do on their own property, in their own homes, on their cars – that's their business," Burris said. "But when this is publicly produced by the government using taxpayer dollars, that's where I have to raise my objections."
Ellis said the governor's position on the matter has remained consistent, despite the opposition. He also pointed out that it's problematic to characterize public opinion by emails sent to the Governor's Office.
Before the Supreme Court ruling and the shootings in Charleston, S.C., put Confederate flag plates in the spotlight, an Elon University Poll showed North Carolinians supported specialty plates at a rate slightly more than the national average. The poll, conducted in early June, asked respondents whether Texas should allow either "Choose Life" or the Confederate battle flag on license plates. A majority of North Carolina residents polled, about 55 percent, said they thought the state should allow both plates. Nationwide, about 47 percent said they'd allow both plates.
But a much higher percentage of whites in North Carolina, 65 percent, supported the plates than blacks, at 23 percent. That gap stood out when compared to results nationally.
"The differences between blacks and whites were smaller in the national sample," Kenneth Fernandez, assistant professor and director of the Elon Poll, said in an email to WRAL News. "This might not be surprising given that blacks growing up on the West Coast may have less experience with the Confederate flag."
But he said he would be surprised if those opinions didn't change in subsequent polls given the renewed national debate.
Fate of tags at standstill
Since the governor spoke out on the issue, there hasn't been much movement on it politically.
McCrory maintains that, given the language of a 1998 North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the plates, the legislature should pass a bill discontinuing them.
Shelly Carver, director of communications for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said Senate leadership still believes the DMV and the governor have the authority to act on their own.
Meanwhile, the number of SCV plates has skyrocketed, from the 2,000 or so on the roads in late June to about 2,600 as of July 31. As a "civic club" plate, the Sons of Confederate Veterans plate is meant only for members of the organization.
DMV officials said a new tally of the tags will be out soon, and it may rival the almost 2,800 issued through the DMV back in April 2000, just two years after they were first minted.
That's fine with Pamela Hair, who said she wants to see production of the plate continue. She insists, as dozens of others did in letters to the governor, that removing the battle flag is an attack both on her rights and her history.
"A lot of Americans, especially Southerners, are feeling the same way I do: This is ridiculous, the reaction of the African-American people to our flag," Hair said in a phone interview. "To try to make us do away with our heritage is unfair."
Others, such as North Carolina State University senior Paul Royalty, want to see the plates stand for another reason. He said in a phone interview that he understands the flag has been used prominently by hate groups, but changing it gives the Charleston shooter the recognition he wanted.
"Future generations should know about the Confederacy because it shows them how much our country has overcome since the beginning," Royalty wrote to the governor on June 24. "Removing the Confederate flag gives this man who killed 9 people ... the win overall."