Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday vetoed a bill authorizing the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag for Kansas license plates, saying it was a symbol of “racism and divisiveness.”
Kelly said the Legislature ensured a veto when it decided to insert the Gadsden flag plate into “an otherwise positive piece of legislation.”
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 insidious 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.
The bill the governor vetoed not only would have authorized the Gadsden flag but also distinctive Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer license plates, proud educator license plates and Alpha Kappa Alpha license plates. Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority found at Howard University was added on the Senate floor.
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.
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.
“The Gadsden flag itself and the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ slogan goes all the way back to the founding of our nation when we were fighting the tyrannical British government,” said Republican state Rep. Blake Carpenter of Derby.
“The ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ slogan doesn’t come from a standpoint of racism, but it comes from a perspective of freedom and allowing us to live life the way we want to live with the least amount of government possible,” Carpenter said.
Over time, however, others have come to think of the Gadsden flag as representing something worse.
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. The Senate voted it down 26-11.
“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.
“The Gadsden flag is antithetical to our founding principles,” Sykes said, “and it has no place on official Kansas plates.”