PHOENIX – A late 18th-century version of the American flag is making 2019 headlines.
Nike has pulled shoes featuring a “Betsy Ross flag” after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick said the design was an offensive symbol to him and others, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey responded by ordering the state to withdraw all financial incentive dollars for Nike to open a manufacturing plant in a Phoenix suburb. The deal had promised to bring some 500 full-time jobs to Goodyear, Arizona.
Ducey said he was “embarrassed for Nike” and accused the shoe and apparel company of calling Betsy Ross “unworthy.”
So who was Betsy Ross? And why is the flag often attributed to her a source of controversy for some? Here’s what we know:
That depends who you ask, though generally it is not viewed that way.
In 2016, students waved the Betsy Ross flag and a Trump banner at a high school football game in Michigan, prompting the superintendent to apologize. The local NAACP chapter released a statement saying the flag was “associated with ‘racial supremacy’ groups.”
The Betsy Ross flag has been used by many different groups over the years, including extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. He said the association is weak compared to other symbols, though.
“Most white supremacists would not know what the Betsy Ross flag was if you asked them about it, compared to all the other symbols that they constantly use,” Pitcavage said.
The anti-government “militia movement” also uses the Betsy Ross flag. Pitcavage said that tie wasn’t strong enough for the average person to immediately connect the two.
Roy Tatem, president of the East Valley NAACP in greater Phoenix, said he didn’t believe the flag was intended to be racist or a racially motivated symbol. He said there wasn’t evidence of Ross being a racist or a slaveholder and he didn’t find the flag offensive.
“However, I believe that we should look at the nuance of it, the history around it,” Tatem said.
Pitcavage said the League doesn’t consider the flag a white supremacy symbol.
“It’s not on our hate symbols list,” he said. “We view it as a historical, patriotic flag that is usually innocuous.”
Nike released a statement Tuesday it regularly makes “business decisions to withdraw initiatives, products and services.”
“Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday,” the statement read. “Nike is a company proud of its American heritage.”
The flag we now call the Betsy Ross flag has a circle of 13 five-point stars in a blue patch on the top left corner. Thirteen alternating red-and-white stripes cut horizontally through the rest of the cloth.
The Continental Congress called for such a flag on June 14, 1777. The number of stars and stripes represent the 13 original colonies.
“This flag maintained familiar colors but was consciously designed to represent the new polity, and it’s no coincidence that the states figured so importantly in the symbolism, since those loyalties ran high and the revolutionary government empowered the states,” said Catherine O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.
If she did play a role, she didn’t act alone, according to experts.
Ross was a real person. She did work in cloth, and she did make flags, according to Catherine O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.
“Historians think she kind of started her own legend, by talking after the war, about her work with flags, telling her children and her grandchildren about what she did,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said people like to have origin stories, so even though it’s unlikely Ross made some crucial flag, it’s appealing to have that story of a female heroine contributing to the birth of a nation.
Marla Miller, a University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor and author of “Betsy Ross and the Making of America,” said Ross’s contributions likely came from more of a craftsmanship standpoint than one of design.
“In the narrative recalled by her descendants, the emphasis is on her having pointed out to George Washington that five-pointed stars were more practical, from a production standpoint, than the six-pointed stars he initially envisioned,” Miller wrote in an email.
Ross’s descendants played a large role in getting her name attached to the flag, according to Peter Van Cleave, clinical assistant professor of history at ASU.
He said the Betsy Ross story emerged after Reconstruction, when many white Americans were looking for points of reconciliation, one being the American Revolution.
“The story, through telling and retelling, became part of American lore, much like the story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, also a fabrication,” he wrote in an email. “Indeed, calling it the Betsy Ross flag is misleading.”
Contributing: Maria Polletta. Follow the Arizona Republic’s Kyra Haas on Twitter @kc_haas.
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