"Many of us who were born black in the 1950s abandoned reverence toward the national anthem once we were old enough to grasp what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said that the country had defaulted on the promises embodied in the Declaration of Independence — and had written people of color a bad check that came back stamped ‘insufficient funds.’’
That metaphor hit home with considerable force during my high school years in a Pennsylvania factory town during the 1960s. Dr. King was assassinated for preaching nonviolent resistance in the South. Muhammad Ali was stripped of the heavyweight boxing title for refusing induction into the Army. And the Vietnam War was unmasked as a morally repugnant enterprise built on a foundation of racism and lies.
By the time I started college in 1969, dissent from the national anthem was endemic. It was an almost everyday occurrence to see groups of African-Americans (and whites as well) — occasionally even athletes and cheerleaders — remaining defiantly seated at sporting events as the audience rose dutifully to its feet for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
Threats and insults were not uncommon. The most consistent and perplexing response came from veterans of World War II, who dominated public life at the time and saw nothing contradictory in the argument that the freedoms they had fought to preserve did not include the liberty to do anything when the anthem was played except stand at attention. African-American anthem dissidents are heirs to a venerable tradition of critical patriotism that dates to what W.E.B. Du Bois termed ‘double consciousness’ — the feeling of being part of the American polity yet not fully of it. This insider-outsider status has driven a longstanding struggle among black Americans to find room in a civic and political system that was built to deny them full citizenship.
The ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ itself has been a subject of that struggle since shortly after Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning Washington lawyer, wrote it to commemorate an American victory over the British during the War of 1812. The song would no doubt have been lost to obscurity had the United States military not appropriated it for flag ceremonies beginning in the late 19th century.
This history seems innocuous enough until one considers that the song tightened its grip on the country during the height of the lynching era in the South and became popular at baseball games at a time when African-Americans were barred from white baseball.
This connection was not lost on the great newspapers of the Negro press, in whose pages the song was referred to as ‘the Caucasian national anthem.’ Black columnists discredited the song by unearthing a long suppressed third stanza (‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave’) that can be read as reflecting the composer’s embrace of slavery and the anger felt toward British officers who used the promise of emancipation to recruit enslaved African-Americans. EDITORS’ PICKS
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Overlooked No More: She Followed a Trail to Wyoming. Then She Blazed One. By the early 20th century, African-Americans were already turning their backs on the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ in favor of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ — known as the Negro national anthem — written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. Passages like ‘We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered’ acknowledge the place of lynching and slavery in the national history.
The bellicose and jingoistic ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ became ubiquitous as Americans rallied to the flag during World War II, giving the idea of patriotism an increasingly narrow — and militaristic — resonance.
The Negro press applied Du Bois’s double consciousness forcefully during this period: It characterized the war as a battle to defeat two foes — Nazism abroad and Jim Crow segregation at home.
The black papers also pointed out the hypocrisy of extolling American freedom in song at a time when black servicemen and servicewomen were confined to military installations that featured segregated housing, movie theaters and buses. With black soldiers subjected to segregation even as they offered their lives for freedom, cultural icons of all kinds — including the national anthem — were subject to deconstruction and criticism.
This attitude is still widely held among African-Americans. A recent poll shows that two-thirds of them believe that the national anthem protests — begun by Colin Kaepernick to protest injustice — are acceptable. Most whites, of course, disagree. And as in the past, the narrow view that people can be counted as patriotic only if they grant the anthem sacrosanct status still holds sway.
The National Football League’s decision to curtail the protests through a threat of fines sets the stage for a potentially combustible football season that will coincide with the midterm elections — and will provide the president with yet another opportunity to exploit racial divisions.
The league’s decision is likely to radicalize players who have come to believe they have a role to play in the debate about police brutality and the resurgence of white supremacy in the age of Trump. Kneeling on the field may have been just the beginning. "