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'Star-Spangled Banner' critics miss the point

Related Link An interview with Mark Clague in the NYT

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the traditional pregame singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in protest of racism in the United States is proving to be a potent attack that will add a vibrant chapter to the fascinating history of the US national anthem. 

"The Star-Spangled Banner" echoes the past and gives voice to our present. It is a living historic performance that resounds with the hopes and devotion of many to the nation, while also serving as witness to the country's legacy of contradictions and a vehicle for social comment.

Kaepernick's star-spangled protest is part of this tradition, and thus is a productive call for Americans to make this "land of the free" serve all its people. However, related claims about the song and its author as especially racist have been distorted and exaggerated.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery. The middle two verses of Key's lyric vilify the British enemy in the War of 1812, what Key refers to in Verse 3 as "hirelings and slaves." This enemy included both whites and blacks, largely British professional soldiers (hirelings) but also the Corps of Colonial Marines (slaves). The Colonial Marines were escaped black American slaves who joined British forces because of the promise of freedom in return for fighting their former masters.

Fortunately, Britain honored this promise after the war, relocating the former slaves and their families to Halifax and Trinidad. For Key, however, the British mercenaries were scoundrels and the Colonial Marines were traitors who threatened to spark a national insurrection. 

The graphic language of Key's denunciation of this British enemy led to the removal of Verse 3 in sheet music editions of the song in World War I, when the United States and Britain became staunch allies.

Yet in 1814 Key's lyric honored American soldiers both black and white. "The Star-Spangled Banner" celebrates the heroes who defended Fort McHenry in the face of almost certain defeat against the most powerful gunships of the era.  ...

Read entire article at CNN