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Eye on History: Patriotism and another look at the national anthem

By Eva M. Doyle

The controversial stand of Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem and the decisions of black football players to take a knee in protest of police brutality and racial injustice has caused a major debate across the country. It is clear from these discussions on this topic that most Americans really do not know the history of the United States as it relates to the flag and the national anthem. On June 17, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a law establishing the flag for a new nation. The resolution stated that this new flag must have alternate red and white stripes and that the union be represented by 13 stars of white in a blue field, representing a new constellation. When this resolution was being written, black people were still slaves. Even in this circumstance the first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man named Crispus Attucks. On March 5, 1770, Attucks led a group of men and fought against the British soldiers. He was the first to die for America’s freedom.

Blacks have been called unpatriotic in light of their decision to kneel during the national anthem. However, the fact is that blacks have been the most patriotic people on the planet. At the very beginning of all wars, they have volunteered to fight for this country. They were rejected in many instances. At the very beginning of the American Revolution, blacks were eager to fight. The Continental Congress opposed their entry into the Army. The Southern slaveholders expressed strong opposition to their enlistment. An order by George Washington banned the recruitment and enlistment of blacks into the Continental Army. This changed only when the British began to accept them in their armed forces and the Americans began to suffer casualties. Many of the slave owners, rather than fight in the war, sent their slaves to fight for them. The Army also rejected black soldiers during the War of 1812. The Navy, however, did welcome them, and although they fought in segregated units the black sailors fought gallantly during the Battle of Lake Erie with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

It was during the War of 1812 that Francis Scott Key wrote what became the national anthem. Key was born Aug. 1, 1779, in Carroll County, Maryland. His parents owned a plantation called Terra Rubra. Like his father and grandfather before him, Key was a slave owner. Key studied law and later became an attorney. He was a close friend of President Andrew Jackson, who appointed him as district attorney in 1833. Key became a founding and active member of the American Colonization Society. The goal of the organization was to send free blacks back to Africa. Key felt that this would rid the country of its race problem. He worked for 20 years to accomplish this goal. In a book called “Snow-Storm in August,” written by Jefferson Morley, the following statement appears: “Key shared a general view of the freed people of color that they were an inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” He also spoke of blacks as a menace to white people. He saw America as being a land of the free for whites only.

When Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” his patriotism came through, especially in the first stanza. But in the third stanza of the song he condemned the Africans who dared to join the British cause to escape slavery. He wished death unto them. He declared in the third stanza that, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” When he wrote these words, missing from his thoughts was the fact that the slaves had tried often to fight for the liberty of this country, but faced opposition at every turn. He directed his anger toward the blacks who fought for the British when they were turned away by Americans. If we are to have an honest and thorough discussion of race in America, let’s tell the whole story and include the third stanza of the national anthem.

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion Newspaper for the past 38 years.

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