Controversy continues to surround the national anthem as this tumultuous NFL season culminates with Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The league banned an advertisement from a veterans organization calling for players to stand and is reportedly looking to keep players in the locker rooms next year to avoid further conflict.
Some of the fallout surrounding the protests arises from reflexive acceptance of the notion that “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates the death of African-American slaves, which prompted the California chapter of the NAACP to call for the song’s ouster as the national anthem. They called it “one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon.”
Melvin Carter III, the new mayor of St. Paul, echoed these sentiments during his inauguration last month.
At issue is the troublesome third verse: “no refuge shall save, the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
Though tempting, a literal reading of this long-ignored line is facile and erroneous.
No evidence supports the contention that the reference to “slave” means African-Americans in bondage.
Francis Scott Key, author of the lyrics, never wrote about the song and commented on his creation only once, to praise the brave men who defended Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor from a British naval bombardment.
Detractors argue that Key’s lyrics refer to the Colonial Marines, enslaved Africans from the Caribbean to whom the British promised freedom if they helped fight Americans during the War of 1812.
It’s true the Colonial Marines fought beside British forces on their way toward Washington, D.C., in 1814. Key watched the smoke rise from the public buildings in the nation’s capital after the British burned them down.
Then the British army and navy turned their attention toward Baltimore. Colonial Marines again participated. However, their minuscule numbers would have hardly attracted attention.
Key’s third verse sticks a finger in the eye of the British writ large. The song gloats over the American victory after years of warfare. So why would he even consider the Colonial Marines at all?
Taken in context, the term “hireling” likely refers to mercenaries who bolstered a British fighting force decimated by the Napoleonic Wars. Many Americans are aware of the Hessians, German troops who augmented British armies during the Revolutionary War.
And rather than referring to a particular handful of fighters, the term “slave” describes all of the monarch’s loyal subjects, including British troops — as contrasted with free patriot Americans. Key also has been criticized for being a poor poet, and this stilted third verse supports this contention: “save,” “slave” and “grave” may merely have offered simplistic rhymes.
Complicating the problem, of course, Key owned around 20 African-American slaves and all of his descendants sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. He did, however, free seven individuals during his lifetime and implored his wife to manumit the rest after his death.
Yet Key held ambivalent notions regarding slavery. He opposed the international slave trade and helped establish the controversial American Colonization Society, which championed the return of free blacks to Africa and established the colony of Liberia. The society, of course, portended to help their charges.
Under President Andrew Jackson, Key served as attorney general in Washington, D.C., where he compiled a mixed record regarding slavery. Though representing enslaved people seeking their liberty pro bono, he also brought cases on behalf of slave owners trying to secure the return of runaways.
And Key initiated two freedom of speech cases, both of which could be construed as contravening the First Amendment. He prosecuted newspaper publisher Benjamin Lundy, a newcomer to the nation’s capital, for criticizing the treatment of African-Americans in Washington, D.C. Lundy moved on rather than go to trial.
Key also brought charges against doctor and botanist Reuben Crandall for possessing a trunk ful of anti-slavery literature. Crandall’s arrest helped ignite the 1835 Snow Riot in downtown Washington, when white mobs attacked free blacks for several days.
History is complicated. But no matter one’s position regarding the anthem protests that have roiled the country, Mayor Carter’s comments, along with the California NAACP’s, interpreting “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a racist icon, are needlessly divisive and misguided, based on fallacious reasoning and scant evidence.
Marc Ferris is author of “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem.”