President of Democrats of Hemet-San Jacinto
“Oh, say can you see” opens the Star Spangled banner”. The history of our current National Anthem started in 1814. Francis Scott Key, an attorney, slave owner and amateur poet was witness to the shelling of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland from a nearby ship. At dawn, he was thrilled to see our countries flag still flying above the fort and wrote the lyrics. It is unknown who set the lyrics to the current melody which was a popular English drinking song although there is some evidence that Key knew the song which celebrated wine, women and song. So essentially the “Star Spangled Banner” is a patriotic poem attached to an English drinking song. The song was very hard to sing but when sung by those who had imbibed a little too much it probably sounded okay. Perhaps it difficulty to sing was why no one initially proposed making the “Star Spangled Banner” our national anthem. “Hail Columbia,” composed for George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, continued to be played at ceremonial events. (Today, it’s still used as the entrance march for the Vice President. In fact, throughout the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just one of several patriotic songs sung on public holidays. With no official national anthem, many different songs were used for ceremonial occasions. It became more popular within the military and in 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the “The Star-Spangled Banner” played when the flag was raised for ceremonial events. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson accompanied his proclamation that June 14 be set aside as “Flag Day” with an order that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be performed at public events. And in 1931, Congress turned Wilson’s executive order into law, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the United States’ national anthem. While the song may be old, it has only been the nation’s “official” anthem for less than 90 years. Moreover, while the words may be gloriously American, the tune is English and this old drinking melody would hardly get approved today without major objections from MADD. In its early years as the official “National Anthem” anyone toying with the melody was met with immediate and usually strong disapproval. At least in terms of the national anthem, Americans have become much more tolerant and it is rare to hear it sung with the additional and changing of many notes. I cannot remember the last time I have heard it sung as originally written.
I have given this history of the “Star Spangled Banner” because both the anthem and the author of its lyrics have been in the news so much lately. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the anthem at the suggestion of a military veteran instead of remaining seated as he had done the previous game. His motivation was not related in any way to the anthem or patriotism. His motivation was to bring attention the plight of Black Americans. Recent events of death at the hands of police have brought to our attention that many previous non-violent, non-disruptive protested have not resulted in any progress in the way our black brethren are treated. Racists have tried to imply such non-violent actions are unpatriotic when the exact opposite is true. Trying to improve the lives of all Americans is the most “American” thing we can do.
Just recently a statue of Francis Scott Key, who is known for writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” but was a slave owner, was toppled by protesters in San Francisco during demonstrations against racial injustice. While he wrote the words “land of the free”, our land was not free for his or any slaves in America. It might seem like Key is up past his historical bedtime. But the backstory and crosscurrents of the anthem are as unresolved as the NFL player challenges still likely to come on game days. Whatever side you’re on, we all need to know the roots of “The Star-Spangled Banner” run deep in slavery’s soil. How deep is seldom told.
Lawyer-poet Key, born to massive slaveholding wealth in Maryland, was one of the richest men in America. He liked it that way. As he grew older and darker, Key sought to buttress slavery, known as our own “peculiar institution.” He did just that, past his last breath. The U.S. Supreme Court, which he helped shape, stood strongly for slavery. So beside the anthem, his political legacy as a critical political player in upholding slavery is devastating. In his 50s, Key became an adviser to President Andrew Jackson, who was also a wealthy self-made Southern slaveholder. At the same time, Key was named by Jackson as the U.S. district attorney for the nation’s capital, where he prosecuted race and slavery laws to the fullest extent, even to the death penalty. He also aggressively prosecuted early.
It bothers me that we judge our ancestors by today’s moral values. Those were different times. So many of us reflect the values of our parents and only modify our values slowly but over many decades values do change. We are making progress. But what bothers me more is that we can and should be progressing faster. We have now had protests every day for over two weeks with no end in sight. Even conservative politicians are taking notice and hedging their comments. I hope the protests (peaceful) continue. We need to keep up the pressure. Your legacy will be determined by whether you support change or remain silent. A better America for EVERYONE could be coming soon with your help. Vote tolerance, vote compassion, vote blue.
President of Democrats of Hemet-San Jacinto
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