'The Star-Spangled Banner': Is national anthem anti-Black? Inside racism controversy over Francis Scott Key poem

'The Star-Spangled Banner': Is national anthem anti-Black? Inside racism controversy over Francis Scott Key poem
A fireworks display concludes a ceremony to commemorate the bicentennial of the writing of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Fort McHenry National Historic Park on September 13, 2014, in Baltimore, Maryland (Getty Images)

March 3, 2021, marks the 90th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ becoming the national anthem. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has been in controversy ever since Key penned the poem after observing the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. Over the years, many have deemed the national anthem a racist poem for its controversial stanzas and what it represents.

The third stanza of the poem includes controversial lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Several political experts have stated that ‘slave’ referred to Colonial Marines who had participated in the Battle of Bladensburg outside Washington D.C. in August 1814. However, an enormous number of readers argued that this identification was incorrect.


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Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), the writer of the poem 'The Star Spangled Banner' (Getty Images)

History behind ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was written by 35-year-old lawyer Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships of the Royal Navy in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The amateur poet was inspired by the large US flag that had 15 stars and 15 strips, flying victoriously above the fort during the US victory.

‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889. It was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ gained popularity in the 19th century and bands started to play it during public events, such as Independence Day celebrations.

A protester holds up a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest (Getty Images)

Protests against ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

Over the years, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has been under several protests. In the 1968 Olympics, the Black Power Salute became a political demonstration conducted by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony in Mexico City. After having won gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter running event, they both turned on the podium to face their flags and hear the national anthem. Each athlete raised a black-gloved fist and kept them raised until the anthem had finished.

In 2016, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ found itself in the news after San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick sparked new debate when he began kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games. His peaceful demonstration was misconstrued by many as being un-American but he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” After former President Donald Trump condemned kneeling, many NFL players started protesting the national anthem in several NFL matches.

Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem (Getty Images)

When the 2020-21 NBA season resumed after the Covid-19 break, the majority of players and coaches kneeled during the national anthem after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers.

Is the national anthem 'anti-Black'?

In 2017, the California Chapter of the NAACP called on Congress to remove ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the national anthem. NAACP president Alice Huffman called the song “racist” and even stated that the song “does not represent our community, it’s anti-black.” As several are celebrating National Anthem Day on March 3, there are few on Twitter who have called the poem "anti Black". One user wrote: "90 years ago today The Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the National Anthem. A song about "the land of the free and the home of the brave” that also contains lyrics about capturing & killing Black slaves who dared escape to freedom. FOH!" While another wrote: "reminder that the star spangled banner was written by a wealthy slave owner and the original poem has a third stanza that doesn’t get sung bc it is blatantly anti Black liberation". Another user resonated similar thoughts in February when they tweeted: "It's got horrible lyrics, corny sentiment, anti-black 3rd verse. Standing for it is arbitrary nonsense. I respect the "free credit report dot com" jingle more than the star spangled banner."




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