By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Tuesday he won’t denounce a Southern heritage group’s proposal for a state-issued license plate that would honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Barbour is a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate.
Questioned by reporters Tuesday after an energy speech in Jackson, Barbour said he doesn’t think Mississippi legislators will approve the Forrest license plate proposed by the Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The group wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates over the next few years to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War — or in its words, the “War Between the States.” The Forrest license plate would be slated for 2014.
Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said it’s “absurd” to honor a “racially divisive figure” such as Forrest. Johnson has also called on Barbour to denounce the license plate idea.
Asked about the NAACP’s stance Tuesday, Barbour replied: “I don’t go around denouncing people. That’s not going to happen. I don’t even denounce the news media.”
Asked to clarify what he thinks is not going to happen, Barbour said he believes lawmakers won’t approve a specialty license plate depicting Forrest.
“I know there’s not a chance it’ll become law,” Barbour said. “And the Bureau of Revenue’s not going to do it unless the Legislature makes it. They’ve already said that plainly. We just don’t do that. And so, it’s just not going to happen.”
Asked what he thinks of Forrest as a historic figure, Barbour replied: “He’s a historic figure.” He then asked for questions on other topics.
Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading an 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.
Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said Tuesday that Barbour’s response to the proposed license plate was insufficient.
“I find it curious that the governor won’t come out and clearly denounce the efforts of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Johnson said. “As the head of the state, he shouldn’t tap dance around the question.”
Mississippi lawmakers over the years have approved specialty license plates for more than 100 groups, causes or universities, including everything from Elvis Presley to autism awareness. Most sell for an extra $30 to $50 a year. A specialty license plate for SCV was authorized in 2003, a few months before Barbour was elected governor. The SCV tag raises money to restore Civil War-era flags.
From 2003 through 2010, the SCV license plate featured a small Confederate battle flag. The state Department of Revenue allowed SCV to redesign the license plate this year for the first of the Civil War series. The 2011 license plate, now on sale, features the Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said if SCV wants to change its design five years in a row, it would need legislative approval. She said it would be cumbersome for the state if each group with a specialty car tag wants a redesign each year.
SCV members originally said they thought they wouldn’t need legislative permission for annual redesigns. As of Tuesday, lawmakers said the SCV had not made a formal request to be included in a license plate bill this year — but groups often make their requests as the legislative session wraps up in late March and early April.
SCV member Greg Stewart told The Associated Press last week he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It’s a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.
“If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words,” Stewart said. “We should respect that.”