There is an inside joke regarding “The Star-Spangled Banner” in American history dating back to World War I. After a night patrol in enemy territory, a soldier returns to base and meets the base sentry. The sentinel, upon noticing the weary soldier, stops him.
SENTRY: Halt, who goes there?
SOLDIER: An American.
SENTRY: An American? Come forward and recite the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner.
SOLDIER: I don’t remember.
SENTRY: Then pass, you are an American.
The irony of this joke appears wasted after President Trump criticized NFL players who took a knee in protest during the National Anthem. After a light show of responses from players and owners, many fans of the NFL have confronted their consciences over just what qualifies as patriotism in our country.
While many athletes have gone on record and stated their actions are not intended to offend military members or insult the National Anthem, still many have been labeled unpatriotic. But athletes would not be the first Americans to be anti-“banner.”
In 1932, our anthem had always been a center for controversy and only in recent decades has standing for it been considered politically correct. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” even before being refurbished into our national song, was notorious as a symbol for the opposing sides of nationalism and oppression.
Between 1847 and 1854, a Bostonian named Justin Jones, writing formerly under the pseudonym Harry Hazel, published a nationalist and racist newspaper poignantly called the Star-Spangled Banner. In a book titled “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem,” author Marc Ferris describes how Jones focused on American territorial expansion—declaring that the American flag called for the pillaging of African-American, Irish-Catholic, Muslim, Mexican, Chinese, and French communities in America.
The nationalism espoused by Jones made patriotism a virtue that meant only elevating the claims of a single group who were in the majority and regarded themselves as above all others.
Abolitionists, by contrast, made parodies of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the Civil War to underscore their fight against oppression. William Lloyd Garrison published “New Version of the National Song” in his abolition newspaper, The Liberator, in 1844.
The satirical lyrics mock contradictions between America’s reality and its idealism. You can sing it for yourselves:
“Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light
The shrieks of those bondsmen, whose blood is now streaming
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming?
Do you see the backs bar? Do you mark every score
Of the whip of the driver trace channel of gore?
And say, doth our Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and home of the brave?”
And even as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was close to being enshrined as the National Anthem, many in the country rejected it. Augusta Stetson, a Christian Scientist, published anti-“banner” advertisements in the New York Tribune, The Washington Star, and The Baltimore Sun as early as 1922.
She and many others said Key’s heralded poem symbolized nationalist aggression and that the melody was un-American in nature. She may have been right. The melody derived from a British pub song called “Anacreon in Heaven.”
Stetson was labeled unpatriotic and subpoenaed by Congress with threats of treason. She was found innocent of those charges but not before she was berated as a traitor and faux-patriot.
In the face of crisis, with the Great Depression looming over the next horizon, Congress determined that America needed an official anthem to manufacture a sense of patriotism and unity. Americans needed to remember how special they were. They needed their patriotism redefined.
During the outset of Stetson’s hearing, Gerald J. O’Keefe, a U.S. Representative from New York, touched the button on congressional intentions. According to The New York Times in 1922, he chastised his colleagues for their “underground plea to corrupt the school children of the country” by omitting the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the National Anthem.
Given the anthem as recited today, with the sudden disappearance of either the hireling or the slave from the third stanza, O’Keefe might have been onto something.
When Congress enshrined “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, they didn’t just change what the poem said, but redefined what it means to be a patriot.
The NFL players’ protest now, as Stetson’s in 1922, and the predecessors of both embody the spirit of America. That elusive phantom, in whatever the spirit of America really is, was given form as the cornerstone of patriotism when the founders ratified the First Amendment—forever making protest not only a right for all Americans, but also a virtue.
We have reached the height of ignorance when we embrace our history only to pronounce that black people have no right to theirs. We have climbed high within our ivory tower, making hypocrites of ourselves—condemning black people as unpatriotic when they protest oppression through non-violence, when our ancestors mounted a war to end such political tyranny.
We should never forget that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written against the background of an America that still considered black people equal only to property. We should never forget that the poem became the anthem when the military was still segregated and Jim Crow mentality still plagued our society.
In a contemporary American culture where political correctness is often scrutinized, we should remember that standing for the National Anthem is about as “politically correct” as we can get. That anthem has been a symbol used to protest against oppression and bullying throughout its history.
If we condemn these NFL players as unpatriotic for kneeling, then we have set the word “free” in the National Anthem to a note so high that it can’t be reached when standing up.