Gov. Larry Hogan will pursue action to stop the state from issuing license plates bearing images of the Confederate battle flag, aides said Tuesday, as momentum seemed to swing decisively against the controversial symbol of a divided America.
Hogan, a Republican, joined the Democratic governor of Virginia in taking steps toward ridding their states of the Sons of Confederate Veterans plates on a day that retail giants Amazon, eBay and Sears followed Wal-Mart in banning Confederate flag merchandise. A major U.S. flag maker said Tuesday it would stop manufacturing and selling the flags.
The flag, flown in battle by Confederate troops during the Civil War but adopted by white supremacist groups, segregationists and opponents of civil rights in the 20th century, has come under fire since the shooting deaths last week of nine black men and women inside a storied African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
A white man who appears in photographs online with the flag in one hand and a gun in the other has been charged with nine counts of murder in what authorities are describing as a hate crime.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has been issuing license plates bearing an image of the flag to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for nearly 20 years.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that Texas is not required to issue a similar plate there, and aides said Hogan has approached the MVA about stopping the practice in Maryland.
"It is the governor's desire definitely not to have these issued anymore," spokesman Doug Mayer said. "How we go about doing that is what has to be determined."
More than 30 state lawmakers called on the MVA to pull the license plates from the 900 specialty tags that it now offers and to begin recalling the 175 that are in circulation. Two lawmakers requested a legal opinion on the matter from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.
But some warned that a debate over symbols could distract policymakers and the public from addressing more important concerns.
Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, called the debate "a waste of time."
"Will it resolve the poverty problem in Baltimore? Probably not," said Anderson, who is black. "Will it resolve the high death rate in Baltimore City? I don't think so.
"You can't change American history. What I would like to do is change America's future, at least the future of Baltimore."
Still, Anderson said, if the matter came before the General Assembly for a vote, he would support recalling the plates.
Others said purging store shelves and government property of the flag is a start.
"We wouldn't allow someone to print out license plate tags with swastikas on it; that's no different, not to me," said City Councilman Brandon M. Scott. "That kind of stuff, for me, it lets me know where I am not welcome. As a state entity, we should not be issuing those."
Jay Barringer, state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he was disappointed that Hogan had decided to take a "low road and not defend the First Amendment."
Of the hundreds of plates offered by the state, Barringer said, he's sure people could take offense to any number of them. He said he finds comparisons between the Sons of Confederate Veterans and hate groups to be "repulsive."
"I was hoping the governor would look past this knee-jerk reaction we see happening," he said. "I am very disappointed to hear this, and regret that the governor is falling in line with a delusion that does not address the deeper problems."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has backed a recall of the plates, which she has called "divisive and offensive."
She also agreed with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz that Robert E. Lee Park — 450 acres owned by the city and operated by the county — should be renamed. Lee lived in Baltimore while he oversaw the construction of Fort Carroll, which began in 1848.
A group of state lawmakers from Baltimore expressed support for changing the name.
"We should not honor an individual who led the forces in rebellion against the United States of America on behalf of secessionists who sought to perpetuate slavery," they wrote to Rawlings-Blake. "When both children and adults visit this park, they should be inspired by the action we urge you to take, not the honor we once bestowed on a leader of the Confederacy."
Also Tuesday, Kennard Alexander Wallace, president-elect of the University System of Maryland Student Council, called on "student leaders, administrators and community members" throughout the university system to support an immediate ban of the Confederate flag on all 12 campuses.
In Pennsylvania, the Valley Forge Flag Co. said Tuesday it would not make or sell the flag.
"When you have a sea change moment like you have with the tragedy in Charleston, we felt it was simply the right thing to do," said Valley Forge Vice President Reggie VandenBosch. "We don't want to do anything that causes pain or disunity for people."
Earlier in the week, a monument honoring Confederate soldiers in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood was defaced with the words "Black Lives Matter."
Maryland and Virginia are among nine states that offer the Sons of Confederate Veterans plates. Others include Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
The Supreme Court decision last week upheld the authority of states to restrict the type of speech on license plates.
In Maryland, nearly 500 tags have been issued since the Sons of Confederate Veterans qualified for a specialty plate in 1996. More than 175 remain in circulation.
State officials tried to pull the tags shortly after they were introduced, but a federal judge ruled that the state had to continue offering them.
State lawmakers, in their letter Tuesday to the MVA and the Department of Transportation, called the flag "the nation's leading symbol of secession, armed rebellion against the U.S. government, slavery and racism."
"To be sure, every symbol has multiple connotations, and not everyone who displays the flag means the same thing by it," they wrote. "But there is no doubt that for millions of Marylanders, the Confederate battle flag's meaning is reasonably and uniquely identified with the history of slavery, white supremacy, and racial violence."
They expressed hope that the agencies will "conclude that the state of Maryland has both the legal authority and a clear reason to disassociate ourselves from a symbol that may reasonably be regarded as a 'badge and incident' of slavery."
State Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. David Moon, both Montgomery County Democrats, asked Frosh to confirm that the agencies have the legal grounds to recall the plates without the need for legislation.
Mark Graber, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said the state has a clear path under federal law for the state to stop issuing the plates. The Supreme Court held that the plates issued in Texas were government speech, not private speech broadly protected under the First Amendment.
"There is no federal bar to getting rid of the Confederate plates," Graber said. "The mere fact that the state allows lots of plates doesn't mean that the state can't disallow plates the state finds offensive."
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called his state's plates "unnecessarily divisive and hurtful." He directed officials there to begin the process of replacing the plates in circulation in Virginia as quickly as possible.
"These steps will, I hope, make clear that this Commonwealth does not support the display of the Confederate battle flag or the message it sends to the rest of the world," McAuliffe said.
Aides to Hogan said the governor directed the administration to research the legal issues that would be involved in recalling the plates, and whether he can act on his own or needs approval from the General Assembly.
"Governor Hogan is against the use of the Confederate flag on Maryland license plates," spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said. "Our office is working with the Motor Vehicle Administration and the attorney general to address this issue."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.