by Harvey Wasserman
Originally published by The Progressive on September 25, 2017
The magnificent and historic protests of our nation’s athletes during The Star-Spangled Banner at their sports games are not merely appropriate—they’re long overdue.
The protests rightly focus on the travesties perpetrated against our citizens of color. That highly-paid professional athletes would risk their careers to take this stand is a powerful tribute to the devastating impact racial injustice is having on our society, and to their courage as individuals. The National Football League owners’ blacklisting of the superbly talented Colin Kaepernick is hard evidence of what such an exercise of free speech can cost in today’s America.
But there’s also another dimension here. The fact is that our national anthem is a terrible song, with racist and militaristic overtones. It needs to be replaced, maybe by a single more appropriate anthem…or maybe by many.
The lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner were written by Francis Scott Key, a slaveowner. He was celebrating the failure of the British to conquer Baltimore in the War of 1812. The Brits had just burned our nation’s capital, partly in response to our burning their Canadian headquarters at York, now Toronto.
The song as it’s sung in public is not explicitly racist. But as Jason Johnson describes in his piece “Star-Spangled Bigotry,” buried in the unsung lyrics was a nasty put-down of freed slaves fighting for the English. A brigade of black soldiers had just humiliated Key and he was not happy about it. The words were set To Anacreon in Heaven, an awkward tune appropriate for inebriation, which is how it was usually sung.
The Navy adopted the song as a military hymn in 1889. Then Woodrow Wilson adopted it in 1916, via executive order, amidst his campaign to stir martial fervor for U.S. entry into World War I. A strong majority of Americans bitterly opposed the war, but Wilson forced it through with an ugly propaganda campaign against Germans as a race.
It took Congress fifteen years—until 1931—to officially make The Star-Spangled Banner the U.S. national anthem.
And it’s always been an ode to war. Nobody made that clearer than Jimi Hendrix. When he played it at Woodstock, 1969, he inserted a devastating version of Taps. Right-wingers piously branded him “unpatriotic,” but Jimi had served in the 101st Airborne.
Today’s professional sports events—especially the NFL—are tainted with militaristic overtones. Air Force flyovers and armed soldiers in formation are everywhere. Those “bombs bursting in air” have been imposed on what should be peaceful pastimes. Those “patriots” who say politics should not be part of sports should first remove the military presence from our stadiums.
In an era so thoroughly plagued by martial madness, we need a new anthem, one that celebrates peace, social justice and diverse expression. Candidates include Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, sung by radical farmers and workers throughout the 1930s. Other possible songs range from Oh Freedom, America the Beautiful and Amazing Grace to Buffy Sainte Marie’s My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying and Johnny Cash’s As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.
Or maybe it’s time we moved beyond a single national song altogether. In an age and nation so thoroughly defined by diversity, we should be celebrating a multitude of verses.
Follow Harvey Wasserman on Twitter: @Solartopia