Slavery and the national anthem: The surprising history behind Colin Kaepernick’s protest
“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
That’s not Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose refusal to stand during the national anthem has invited criticism from all corners of the sports world.
That’s Jackie Robinson, beloved baseball pioneer and civil rights activist, writing in his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made.”
After Kaepernick was spotted sitting during the anthem preceding last Friday’s NFL preseason game, the struggling quarterback said he would not stand “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
It’s hard not to notice their words are almost perfectly aligned. But it shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider some historical context, namely, that the anthem actually contains a reference to slavery and Kaepernick is far from the first athlete to question its scope.
The national anthem’s forgotten lyrics
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 about the American victory at the Battle of Fort McHenry. We only sing the first verse, but Key penned three more. This is the third verse:
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.
The mere mention of “slave” is not entirely remarkable; slavery was alive and well in the United States in 1814. Key himself owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and once called his African brethren “a distinct and inferior race of people.”
Some interpretations of these lyrics contend Key was in fact taking pleasure in the deaths of freed black slaves who had decided to fight with the British against the United States.
In order to bolster their numbers, British forces offered slaves their freedom in British territories if they would join their cause during the war. These black recruits formed the Colonial Marines, and were looked down upon by people like Key who saw their actions as treasonous.
As an anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has never been a unanimous fit. Since it was officially designated as the national anthem in 1931, Americans have debated its suitability of its militaristic lyrics and difficult tune. (Some have offered up “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” are as alternatives.)
Athletes and the American ritual
The American ritual of the national anthem has always been a crucible for patriotism and protest. It presents a particularly fraught dynamic for sports stars, since sports events are often so closely tied with the rhetoric of American pride. When a highly visible opinion comes up against a highly visible symbol, the result is always incendiary.
Around the same time, Jackie Robinson was using his achievements to advance civil rights causes, two American Olympic runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as the anthem was playing.
The result was iconic. The reaction was ugly. Racial slurs were hurled at the pair and an article in Time called it a “public display of petulance.”
Today, similar criticisms have been leveled against Kaepernick, a biracial Super Bowl quarterback who was raised by white adoptive parents and made $13 million in 2014. He was called “spoiled.” He was called far worse in his Twitter mentions.
It’s a lot of ire for a gesture with a strong historical and rhetorical precedent.
One doesn’t even need to dip into iconic moments in history to follow the trend.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers player Dion Waiters refused to be on the court for the anthem in 2014. And Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf courted criticism after he deliberately sat during the anthem in 1996.
In fact, Kaepernick didn’t stand for the first two preseason games of this year prior to Friday’s display. He wasn’t in uniform, so no one noticed. Or if they did, they didn’t care.