When I was growing up in Philadelphia, my father and his brother owned a small clothing store a few blocks from Independence Hall, Christ Church and its graves of Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the Betsy Ross House. It was among a large number of modest wholesale stores established by immigrants and their offspring. I cannot recall when I first learned that the conventional wisdom about Betsy Ross having primarily sewn early American flags was inaccurate. But I do recall that I could still appreciate her — and other flag makers’ — contribution to the Revolutionary War.
With former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick now back in the news amid Nike’s decision not to sell new sneakers with the “Betsy Ross” flag on their bottom, it is time for him to rethink the moral correctness of his anti-Betsy Ross crusade.
One does not need to be a political conservative, as I am certainly not, to appreciate what Ross and other women contributed to the glorious cause. Yes, they lived and worked in a time of slavery throughout the 13 colonies and then the new nation. But their efforts to promote independence from Great Britain and democracy for at least white male Americans is worthy of respect, not condemnation.
What exactly has Kaepernick done to improve American society? Are his and other professional athletes’ refusal to salute the American flag acts of courage? True, he lost valuable years from his career and has been unable to be hired by any professional team. But so, for example, did baseball stars like Ted Williams and movie stars like Jimmy Stewart, who took leave of their professional careers to serve in the U.S. military.
To be sure, Kaepernick’s repeated criticisms of fatal encounters between police and African Americans are often legitimate. And his indictment of the overall American system of (mis)judgment cannot be minimized.
But I draw the line with Kaepernick’s persistent refusal to vote in any elections, including Barack Obama’s 2018 and 2012 presidential campaigns. I had wondered why he didn’t think it worth his time to vote for the first African American president. Now I know.
His latest controversy over Nike’s new sneakers rationalizes that voting even for African Americans, makes one part of “the system,” in the language of the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. Better not to dirty one’s hands than to be tainted with voting.
As a new graduate student in history at Princeton in the early 1970s, I recall arguments on both sides from what became the “ Princeton Plan,” which meant putting aside one’s cynicism to vote. Not an especially original argument, but it and similar proposals elsewhere — especially at elite colleges and universities — did have an effect at the time.
With the Trump Administration undermining American democracy and respect for the law at every term, one might well dismiss the Princeton Plan as a failure. Still, the refusal to vote at all remains a huge mistake.
Howard Segal is a professor of history at the University of Maine.