The California chapter of the NAACP is supporting a congressional resolution to replace the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," with another national hymn. They contend that the anthem is “one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon
Several historians contend that Francis Scott Key, the author, owned slaves and held racist views toward African-Americans. The third stanza in the anthem: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave" appears to call for the death of slaves.
These charges deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed in the context of both the times of Francis Scott Key and the times of today. Francis Scott Key’s record on slavery is nuanced. While he came to own six slaves, as a prominent attorney he represented, pro bono, slaves seeking their freedom. In the 1830’s, Key manumitted seven slaves, hiring and paying Clem Johnson, one of his former slaves to supervise his farm. Key’s obituary noted: “So actively hostile was he to the peculiar institution that he was called 'The N***** Lawyer' .... because he often volunteered to defend the downtrodden sons and daughters of Africa. Mr. Key convinced me that slavery was wrong — radically wrong."
Key also defended slave owners seeking the return of escaped slaves. Key once noted that blacks were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
The War of 1812 and the British storming of Fort McHenry in Baltimore took place at a time when slavery was accepted on both sides of the Atlantic. The war took place several decades before British politician and Christian apologist William Wilberforce launched his successful movement to abolish slavery in the British colonies. While the exact meaning of Key’s reference to “hireling and slave” is not known, historians have generally viewed the term hireling to mean the invading British soldiers and slave as a specific reference to escaped black slaves who had joined the British ranks in exchange for the promise of freedom and not all black people.
The assault on "The Star-Spangled Banner" should also be viewed in the context of a wider lens than simply its connection to slavery as important as this is. There are likely other motives behind this assault that deserve an equal examination. Historically, "The Star-Spangled Banner" stands for the assertion of American sovereignty for the young nation against an invasion by the most powerful empire in the world at that time. The success of America was by no means assured as the nation struggled to face an enemy that operated from abroad and internally. The attack on the national anthem thus could be viewed as an assault on American sovereignty that finds echoes in the today’s assault on President Trump’s agenda of putting America first and making America great again.
The national anthem openly and unabashedly celebrates America’s military victory. The assault today echoes a dovish anti-military agenda that seeks to cut back on defense and denigrate veterans. The national anthem is, if nothing else, an expression of American military prowess and might.
Since World War II, the national anthem has been recited at national and at local sporting events as a tribute to the men who fought and died fighting Adolf Hitler and the men and women who have fought and who continue to fight in wars defending American freedom. Thus, even though it could be argued that the national anthem perhaps contains vestiges of racism emanating from before the Civil War, the meaning and the significance of national anthem has evolved beyond this. Indeed, the question of the racist origins of the National Anthem was virtually unknown until very recently.
Thus all Americans should consider supporting the recitation of the national anthem for what it stands for today which is an opportunity for all Americans, from all backgrounds, to come together to honor the nation that, with all its imperfections, remains the best hope on earth.
Chuck Morse is a radio host who broadcasts live Thursday's at 10 a.m. ET at WMFO-Tufts. Chuck hosts the podcast "Chuck Morse Speaks" on iTunes and Stitcher and his books are available on Amazon.com. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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