The Kansas Legislature overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill authorizing the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag for Kansas license plates.
The bill not only authorizes the Gadsden flag but also distinctive Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer license plates, proud educator license plates as well as Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta plates.
The plates cost $40, and drivers pay anywhere from $25 to $100 more to the organization sponsoring the plate — in this case the Kansas State Rifle Association.
The Gadsden flag started to raise attention in the Senate where Democrats criticized the background of the flag’s designer.
The flag — known for its coiled snake and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto — emerged in 1775 at the start of the American Revolution as a symbol of defiance against England.
It was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolinian who owned two rice plantations and slaves but played a prominent role in the American Revolution.
Gadsden served in the First Continental Congress and as a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
He has been described as a “forgotten founding father.”
But Democrats said he had an unsavory side that should not be recognized on Kansas license plates.
Gadsden built Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, where as many as 40% of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States first arrived.
Supporters of the Gadsden flag said it was a symbol of gun rights and limited government, regardless of the background of the designer.
They even pointed to the fact that the Democrats celebate “Washington Days” at their yearly convention. George Washington, they noted, owned slaves.
“Our constituents understand when they see the ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ they understand that flag harkens back to the founding of our country and the tyrannical British government,” said Republican state Rep. Blake Carpenter of Derby.
“Nobody wants the government to tread on their rights and I think that is especially true today as it was 250 some years ago,” Carpenter said.
Over time, however, others have come to think of the Gadsden flag as representing something else.
In 2014, a postal service maintenance mechanic in Denver filed a discrimination complaint when a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of a flag with a rattlesnake ready to strike and the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t find that the flag was a symbol of racism.
However, the EEOC found that while the Gadsden Flag “originated in a non-racial context, it has since been ‘interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.'”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes led an effort on the Senate floor to remove the Gadsden flag from the bill and had opposed authorizing the plate.
“Taxpayers from the Free State should not be subsidizing divisive iconography that glorifies a man who advocated for and profited from the slave trade,” Sykes said in a statement after the bill was vetoed..
“The Gadsden flag is antithetical to our founding principles,” Sykes said, “and it has no place on official Kansas plates.”