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
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.