In 2015, after a young white man who had claimed allegiance to the Confederacy massacred nine people at a historic black church, the availability of a North Carolina specialty license plate bearing the logo of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans was in jeopardy. With some drivers in North Carolina thinking the specialty plate might not be available soon, demand for that plate, which includes the Confederate battle flag, soared.
N.C. Department of Transportation leaders ultimately have not taken that specialty plate – one of more than 200 available to North Carolina vehicle owners – off the roads. Demand for that specialty plate has waned since 2015, but hundreds still purchase the specialty license plate every year.
Statewide, environmental advocacy specialty plates are the most popular, in part because they generate revenue for nonprofit organizations that support state and national parks. There is an additional fee for a specialty plate, ranging from $10 to $30 depending on the plate chosen. Some military specialty plates and the plate associated with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee can be free of charge if the applicant provides required documentation. Revenue from these additional fees is distributed in a variety of ways, again depending on the plate chosen. The N.C. Division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans does not receive revenue from the purchase of that specialty license plate.
Below is an interactive graphic to explore the 250 specialty license plates available to North Carolina vehicle owners. Hover over any portion of the graphic for more information. Check and un-check boxes to drill down to individual plate categories. Below, see a full breakdown of the purchase of all specialty plates by year.
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans specialty plate was first available in 1998. Most specialty plates have their highest sales in the first few years of availability due to pent up demand. The Sons of Confederate Veterans plate was no different. It ranked in the top three most popular specialty plates for three straight years and then ranked in the top 10 for another four years. In those first seven years, drivers bought 4,873 of this specialty plate, ranking it as the No. 5 most popular specialty plate in that time.
Over time, new interest in the Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty plate waned. From 2005 through 2014, there were 252 plates sold per year, on average. That ranked as the No. 28 most popular specialty plate during that decade.
Then in 2015, the specialty plate hit a resurgence. That year, 1,425 of the specialty plate were sold, setting an all-time high for that plate and ranking as the fifth most popular specialty plate that year. Another 596 were sold in 2016.
Frank Powell, a spokesman for the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the uptick came directly after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was later convicted on 33 counts and given a death sentence.
Not long after the shooting, then South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. Supporters of the Confederate heritage saw this as an attack, said Powell.
"Well it was then-governor (Pat) McCrory who came out with the bright idea about we should get rid of our license plates. He actually did it after we had that terrible shooting in Charleston," Powell said. "Nikki Haley who was the governor of South Carolina came out against the flag, and the next day Governor McCrory, I guess riding her coattails, said that (we) should revoke our license plates, because it had a Confederate flag on it."
The possibility of seeing that specialty plate removed was enough motivation for many to get one that year, said Powell.
"So, some of our members who did not have them said, 'Well we better get one while we still can.' So that was what was responsible for the uptake at that time," Powell said. "Of course we fought the governor on that and won, so it hasn't been an issue since."
Indeed, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is still available for purchase. Powell added there was an overall increase in interest in the organization. "During that time also we had a little uptick in membership because when people get mad they are prone to act, especially on emotions. So we had some new people join (saying), you know, 'I want to help you guys out,'" he said.
Environmental Plates Most Common
Of course, the Sons of Confederate Veterans isn't the only specialty plate. In fact, there are more than 200, though many are rare and highly specialized. The most popular by far is the handicapped specialty plate, however this plate is in a slightly different class because it affords the driver certain special access, like handicapped parking. Other specialty plates show support for an organization, but don't come with other privileges.
Environmental support specialty plates are popular throughout the state. For these plates, a portion of the additional fee goes to support that organization. The Great Smoky Mountains specialty plate is the second most popular license plate of all time in North Carolina – behind the handicapped plate. Revenue from the plates has provided more than $5 million to the Friends of the Smokies, a group that works to preserve the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Anna Zanetti, the North Carolina Friends of the Smokies director, said the group relies on that specialty plate funding.
"Five million is huge. I'm an office of two in North Carolina, so for us to have that consistent revenue is really amazing," she said. "It helps us just to know exactly where the money is coming from so we can plan in advance to give money to the park for certain projects."