Colin Kaepernick, a football player from my home city of San Francisco is in the news, and taking all kinds of heat, for refusing to stand during the national anthem. The 49er quarterback said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In his refusal to stand for The Star Spangled Banner, Kaepernick has made himself a lightning rod for the necessary discussion of race in America. He has also shed light on a little told tale of the origins of our country’s song. Settle in, Gentle Readers, this is one incredible story!
The Star Spangled Banner is a poem written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. This was a war our young country launched to seize Canada from the British. Although the U.S. lost that war, they did win the battle of Fort McHenry, and when Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying above the fort, he was inspired to write about the “Land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Here’s the part I never knew. While the first part of the poem is what is sung at pretty much every sporting event in the U.S., the poem is actually four stanzas long. In the third stanza, Key celebrates the killing of Black soldiers who helped the British. An article in The Atlantic magazine tells how the British army recognized America’s weakness, slavery. British military leaders encouraged slaves, who were often hungry and clad in rags, to flee from bondage and help defeat their former masters. Some 600 Chesapeake Bay slaves joined the British Colonial Marines and marched with redcoats on Washington, DC, and Baltimore.
At first it was single, enslaved men who escaped slavery to serve as pilots, guides, and spies. Later, whole families were making their way to British ships, whose captains promised the slaves free emigration to British colonies in Canada and the West Indies in exchange for their service.
Francis Scott Key was a slave owning lawyer. Africans in America, he said, were: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
Let this sink in: The man who wrote our country’s national anthem owned slaves. This is the third stanza of our Star Spangled Banner:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
White Americans are long overdue in wrestling with the suffering of slavery, Jim Crow, and centuries of racism that is woven into the fabric of our country. Our founding fathers were perpetuating a great evil. Instead of admitting they were doing something terrible (owning other human beings) they projected the evil onto those “others.” This is still happening today. In the weeks since Colin Kaepernick began kneeling instead of standing up for the national anthem, 16 people have been killed by police in the United States. This is more police killings than many countries experience in an entire year!
True patriotism means holding ourselves, our government, and our institutions accountable when we do wrong. True patriotism means insisting we do a better and better job of making sure the beautiful words in our United States Constitution “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” apply to everyone. I thank Colin Kaepernick for being so much more than a football player. By kneeling during the national anthem he has also become a teacher and a leader.