29 Sep

How the National Anthem Became a Moral and Ethical Issue We Must Confront

Posted by Obiora Nnamdi Anekwe

Like most people, I was unaware of the many aspects related to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For all intense purposes, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. Like myself, most people are unable to recite all the lyrics to the song, let alone understand the meanings associated with it. For example, according to historian Robin Blackburn, the words "the hireling and slave" allude to the fact that the British attackers had many former slaves in their ranks. These former slaves were  promised liberty by the British. In turn, they demanded to be placed in the battle line "where they might expect to meet their former masters.”

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics originate from "Defence of Fort M’Henry", a poem written on September 14, 1814, by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships of the Royal Navy in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the large American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, flying above the fort during the bombardment. The poem was set to the music of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London.

The man behind the original lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unknown to many. Francis Scott Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C. He was a vigilant advocate for slavery. In fact, he believed that black people were mentally inferior. Because this was so, he also argued that their masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. Key supported sending free black Americans back to Africa. He was a descendant of plantation owners. His family became wealthy due to the number of slaves they owned, thus earning him the titled of an aristocrat. As District Attorney of Washington, Francis Scott Key fought for slavery and against abolitionist ideals at every turn. Even when blacks in Washington, D.C. were maliciously injured or murdered, Key fought against the justice they deserved. He openly spoke racist words against blacks in America, whether they were free or enslaved. Key once described black people as "a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community."

Francis Scott Key came head to head with his greatest fears as a lieutenant in August 24, 1815, when at the Battle of Bladensburg, Key was confronted by a battalion of Colonial Marines. The Marines were a battalion of former enslaved men who ran away from colonial slavery in America in order to fight with the British Royal Army in exchange for permanent human freedom. The word Marines originates from the British Royal Army’s usage of these black troops who entered first into battle in order to secure and set the stage for army troops to enter next with less casualties. In war theater today, U.S. Marines are the first line of troops that enter into battle. This group of black men took Key’s troops to a woodshed. Key fled the scene and traveled back to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. in order to recover from defeat. In turn, the British troops marched into Washington, D.C., subsequently burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building, and even the White House.

Weeks later in September of 1815, Francis Scott Key was negotiating the release of his friend, Dr. William Beanes, who was held captive by the British. During his negotiations, he witnessed the fateful battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. Although the American troops lost the battle, Key was so inspired by their bravery and courage that he wrote a poem which eventually became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Many Americans are unaware of the third stanza within the poem which denigrates former enslaved black men who fought with the British Royal Army for their physical freedom. As written in stanza three, Key openly celebrates the murder of slaves:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.                                                                                           

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.

Key was essentially stating that the blood of these former slaves and hirelings or hired soldiers on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of unwelcomed British infiltrators.
In recent weeks, San Francisco 49ers quarter back Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the national anthem. He has been criticized for being unpatriotic. But many critics of his actions are unaware of the symbolism and rhetoric stated within the third verse of the national anthem.

Throughout this and last year, there have been several social justice movements at universities and other institutions that have attempted to right the wrongs of past American racial subjugation. For example, Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C., has begun to reconcile the immoral deed of selling 272 enslaved black Americans in 1838 to pay down their university debts. In an effort to acknowledge the university’s connection to slavery, Georgetown University will offer descendants of nearly 300 slaves preferential treatment in its admissions application process. Historically, in 1838, the school sold 272 slaves who were working on plantations in southern Maryland to pay down its debts. The school will also build a memorial in honor of the 272 enslaved black people sold and rename two buildings that were named after the university presidents who facilitated the 1838 sale.

Another notable symbolic gesture last year was the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capital building because of its racially separatist symbolism and negative ideals against black Americans. As such, there may need to be a necessity to consider the remove of offense words found in the third verse of the national anthem or even a national movement to create a new anthem because of the divisive and racially charged lyrics in the third verse of the national anthem. This movement should be considered because the ideals of white supremacy that Francis Scott Key believed in runs contrary to the very ideals that America espouses. As such, it would not only be the most moral thing to do, but also the most ethical framework to consider. 



Johnson, Jason. (2016, July 4). Star-spangled bigotry: The hidden racist history of the national anthem. Retrieved from www.theroot.com

King, Shaun. 2016, August 29Z). KING: Why I'll never stand again for 'The Star-Spangled Banner.’ New York Daily News.

Vasel, Kathryn. (2016, September 1). Georgetown to offer slave descendants preferential admission status. Retrieved from www.cnnmoney.com