A Virginia lawmaker says it’s time to scrap the official Robert E. Lee license plate

‘We are pretending that this is something admirable’

By: - January 18, 2023 1:33 pm

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee being removed from its pedestal on Richmond's Monument Avenue after a lengthy legal battle. (Scott Elmquist/ Style weekly)

Over the last few years, many Virginia officials have made it clear they don’t want the state to officially venerate Robert E. Lee anymore.

The massive, state-owned Robert E. Lee statue is gone from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Other Lee statues were removed from both the Virginia Capitol and the Virginia section of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Lee-Jackson Day is no longer one of Virginia’s official state holidays.

A sample image of the Robert E. Lee license plate available on the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles website.

But there are still 1,766 vehicles in Virginia with government-issued license plates honoring Lee, a slave owner who commanded the Confederate army during the Civil War. The plate, one of hundreds of special designs motorists can purchase from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, calls Lee “The Virginia Gentleman.”

After a Northern Virginia constituent asked about the issue, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, says it’s time for the license plates to go too. And she’s filed a bill to get rid of them.

“We are in an era where people want to rewrite history and they want to have an incorrect telling of what happened,” Mundon King said in an interview. “And when we promote things like that license plate, we are pretending that this is something admirable. And his actions, committing treason against the U.S., were not.”

Mundon King’s bill appears to be written broadly enough that the prohibition can apply to both the Lee plate design and custom messages purchasers can apply to any plate. The bill would prohibit any personalized plate “that makes reference to the Confederacy or any persons who committed acts of treason against the United States.” 

License plates are usually a fairly mundane issue for the General Assembly, which is often asked to approve new designs sought by outside groups. But they can occasionally spark debate over what messages and symbols the state should grant to drivers who want a little more flair than the standard blue-and-white plates can provide.

Eight years ago, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for the state to stop giving out license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag, a design sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.But McAuliffe didn’t go further after the state stopped giving out the battle flag plate, which left the Lee plate as an alternative for Confederate heritage groups. 

The Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans website encourages members to purchase the Lee plates, calling them “a great way to show your pride in being a Virginian by celebrating the contributions of one of the greatest Virginians to ever live.”

The General Assembly approved the Lee plates on a virtually unanimous, bipartisan basis. That vote occurred in 2007, years before many state policymakers had started to openly discuss how offensive Confederate iconography is to Black Virginians.

Free speech concerns have tied the state’s hands in past license plate debates. Virginia resisted approving the plate with the Confederate battle flag, but a federal judge ordered the state to start issuing them in 2001, ruling the government couldn’t grant specialty plates to some groups and deny them to others based on whether the group’s beliefs were deemed acceptable.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that Texas could deny a Confederate-themed plate in an opinion that concluded state-issued plates are a form of government speech, not a public forum for advocacy groups to promote their own messages. That ruling helped Virginia defend the McAuliffe-era ban on plates with the Confederate battle flag after the Sons of Confederate veterans sued to block it.

Mundon King’s bill to scrap the Lee plate is co-sponsored by eight other Democrats in the House of Delegates, but it’s unclear whether it might pick up the Republican support it would need to pass. Democratic leaders led the push to remove Lee statues in recent years, but both Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears said in 2021 that they supported the decision to remove the Lee monument in Richmond.

Rather than continuing to promote Lee, Mundon King said, the focus should be on the experiences of the people whom Lee enslaved.

“Their stories matter,” Mundon King said. “And it’s harmful to our kids to continue to promote this narrative of the Lost Cause with state resources.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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