The Amer­i­can public has been con­di­tioned to see the an­them-singing rit­ual at sport­ing events as a demon­stra­tion of pa­tri­o­tism, but no one should stand for cow­ardice and hypocrisy

NOW Magazine - - U.S. POLITICS - By GARY FREE­MAN | @nowtoronto

The third stanza of Fran­cis Scott Key’s song is the most dis­turb­ing: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave.”

The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing whether NFL play­ers should be al­lowed to kneel to protest the shoot­ing of un­armed Black men by po­lice dur­ing the pre-game singing of the U.S. na­tional an­them is rag­ing once again. As a new sea­son is set to kick off Septem­ber 6, the Na­tional Foot­ball League will fine play­ers who refuse to stand for the an­them.

The Amer­i­can public has been con­di­tioned to con­sider the an­them-singing rit­ual at sport­ing events as a demon­stra­tion of pa­tri­o­tism. Hands over their hearts, they will solemnly turn their faces to­ward the Amer­i­can flag held by mil­i­tary or quasi-mil­i­tary per­son­nel while some­one, prefer­ably a celebrity, sings. “Oh say can you see….”

Fran­cis Scott Key is cred­ited with writ­ing the lyrics in 1814, but only the first stanza of John Stafford Smith’s com­po­si­tion makes up the an­them. There were more stan­zas to the song rec­og­niz­ing the birth of a na­tion that ex­pose the cow­ardice and hypocrisy that lie at its core.

But let us first con­sider the an­them’s fi­nal re­frain – “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” – in the clar­i­fy­ing light of his­tory.

In April 1813, Amer­i­can forces, as part of their strategy to con­trol Lake On­tario and seize Canada, at­tacked the towns of Ni­a­gara and York, the lat­ter of which was the cap­i­tal of the Bri­tish colo­nial prov­ince of Up­per Canada. Amer­i­can forces ran­sacked the towns, which in­cluded loot­ing and burn­ing public and pri­vate prop­erty. Out­raged res­i­dents and the press de­manded retri­bu­tion.

In early 1814, the Bri­tish de­feated Napoleon and fo­cused their at­ten­tion more keenly on hos­til­i­ties with the U.S., which re­sulted in a ma­jor Bri­tish mil­i­tary build-up in Ch­e­sa­peake Bay near Bal­ti­more Har­bor. The Amer­i­cans no­ticed the build-up and thought the Bri­tish were plan­ning an at­tack on Bal­ti­more, a ma­jor cen­tre of eco­nomic and strate­gic im­por­tance. In­stead, the Bri­tish turned south when they landed and marched to­ward the cap­i­tal, Wash­ing­ton, DC.

U.S. Pres­i­dent James Madi­son or­dered his mil­i­tary of­fi­cers to stop the Bri­tish by en­gag­ing their troops in bat­tle at Bladens­burg, Mary­land. (I spent sig­nif­i­cant for­ma­tive years in the area of North­east Wash­ing­ton, just down the road from Bladens­burg.)

But the Bri­tish would de­feat the Amer­i­cans and con­tinue their south­ward march to Wash­ing­ton, where they burned public build­ings, in­clud­ing the White House, ex­act­ing the re­venge de­manded by Cana­di­ans.

The burn­ing of the White House is con­sid­ered a most spec­tac­u­lar event, but the real story be­hind the an­them is what ac­tu­ally hap­pened at Bladens­burg. En­ter Key, the “in­ex­pe­ri­enced scion” who had been mo­bi­lized as a lieu­tenant with the Ge­orge­town mili­tia in which he served.

Jef­fer­son Mor­ley, in his book SnowS­torm In Au­gust, gives us a very fine ac­count of what took place.

“When the novices in the Amer­i­can front lines saw the im­pla­ca­ble ad­vance of Bri­tish bay­o­nets, some started to panic. Their of­fi­cers, such as Key, did not com­mand much re­spect and could not calm them. One line of sol­diers broke and ran, then an­other. As the troops started to flee the bat­tle zone, their hap­less of­fi­cers joined them, caus­ing still more to bolt. As the gun­fire in­ten­si­fied, the Amer­i­cans took flight by the hun­dreds and then thou­sands. Most sim­ply ran back to­ward Wash­ing­ton, in­clud­ing Lieu­tenant Key, who chugged down the dirt road look­ing sweaty and ridicu­lous in his blue uni­form. Wags and car­toon­ists would soon dub this mass re­treat the ‘Bladens­burg Races,’ a de­ri­sive term that did ser­vice as a punch line for decades. In the Bladens­burg Races, Fran­cis Scott Key was a sprinter.”

Yet, Key did re­cover enough courage to ob­tain per­mis­sion from Madi­son to go to the aid of a fam­ily friend who had been ar­rested and de­tained by Bri­tish forces in Bal­ti­more. Upon his ar­rival, Key asked the Bri­tish to re­lease his friend, Dr. Wil­liam Beanes. But Key was him­self or­dered to de­ten­tion while the Bri­tish at­tended to some un­fin­ished busi­ness.

Mor­ley again: “As the Bri­tish forces bom­barded Fort McHenry on the morn­ing of Septem­ber 14, 1814, they proved their prow­ess in the spec­tac­u­lar and use­less dis­play of mil­i­tary power. The Bri­tish ships, an­chored out­side the range of the Amer­i­can guns, faced no re­turn fire. The U.S. forces in­side the fort hung out a mas­sive red, white and blue flag and hun­kered down to with­stand the on­slaught. They ab­sorbed the ar­tillery fire all night, with epic ex­plo­sions from the mas­sive Bri­tish can­nons light­ing up the night sky. When dawn came, Key saw the Bri­tish had not breached the fort’s walls and the flag was still there. The Bri­tish of­fi­cers, not car­ing to ex­pend more am­mu­ni­tion, de­cided they had made their point and prepared to move on.”

“In the mod­ern mind,” writes Mor­ley, “where the song ends the ball game be­gins.” But where does the StarS­pan­gled Ban­ner end? Cer­tainly not at the first stanza.

The words from the third stanza are the most dis­turb­ing: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the ter­ror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

Dur­ing that Au­gust 1814, as the Bri­tish marched from Mary­land to Wash­ing­ton, more than 1,000 slaves ran away from their white own­ers to join the Bri­tish, who had of­fered them free­dom in ex­change for their as­sis­tance.

Even as Key wrote the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner and sought to have his friend’s free­dom re­stored, he de­sired that enslaved African-Amer­i­cans should re­main for­ever enslaved, and fur­ther that only death was the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for any slave seek­ing free­dom.

Key’s ilk still lurk about to­day. They pa­rade in so-called white na­tion­al­ist marches in places like Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia. They bran­dish Con­fed­er­ate flags. They oc­cupy the high­est of­fices in the United States of Amer­ica and use their of­fice to pro­mote and en­gage in vil­i­fi­ca­tion and phys­i­cal at­tacks upon African-Amer­i­cans.

No one should stand for hypocrisy and cow­ardice. No one should stand for slav­ery and its mod­ern ves­tiges. No one should stand for racial and eth­nic pro­fil­ing. No one should stand for the quin­tes­sen­tial man­i­fes­ta­tion of racism that is in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­wo­ven into both the flag and its an­them.

In­deed, take a knee.

The NFL will now fine play­ers who fol­low the ex­am­ple of for­mer San Francisco 49er Colin Kaeper­nick (right) and take a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

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