Take A Knee
Trying to understand the protest and its backlash.
When I first decided to write this article, I started with Colin Kaepernick not being on an NFL roster. I cited that two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers both thought he should be. I then moved on to Donald Trump’s comments on how he thought an NFL owner should fire a player for kneeling during the National Anthem because it was disrespectful to the country, flag and the men and women who have served this country in the armed forces. As I researched this article I thought providing a timeline of events would be a better way to do this. It turns out the website SBNation has done just that. You can find it here. It is important to note that missing from this timeline is the event in which Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts on October the 8th. After walking out, he took to twitter and gave his reason as to why he left.
We are currently a house divided. On one side those that wish to discuss the issues of racial inequality and racism. On the other those that wish to ignore those issues and instead focus on the protest of not standing for the national anthem as disrespectful to the country, flag and military. But is it disrespectful to take a knee during the national anthem before any sporting event? When did we start playing the national anthem before games? What do we really know about the song and Francis Scott Key the man that wrote it? Is there something we are missing when we focus on the form of protest rather than its message?
Long before Colin Kaepernick or any other football player took a knee during the national anthem, the act of taking a knee in protest to racial injustice was done by Dr. Martin Luther King. During the protest in Selma, Alabama in 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights workers took a knee with heads bowed. Dr. King in this peaceful display of protest was affirming the rights we all have under the First Amendment. The right of freedom of speech and expression. No, it was not done before the playing of the national anthem, I concede that, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the act was a peaceful demonstration of protest toward the racial injustice found in the segregated South. That got me to thinking, “Has there been a protest during the National Anthem at a sporting event?” Turns out there has been.
During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City Tommie Smith and John Carlos who had won gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters raised their black fists in protest during the playing of the National Anthem during their medal ceremony. The picture of these two men in protest is one of Sport’s most iconic images. But their protest that day included more than raised fists. Both men also took off their shoes as they headed to the podium in protest of poverty in the United States. They both wore beads and a scarf to protest lynching which was still going on in the South. The punishment for their actions was swift. The day following their medal ceremony, the International Olympic Committee stripped both men of their medals. They were also ordered to immediately leave the Olympic village and all of Mexico. When they returned home they were suspended from the United States track team. Both men received death threats for years after the event; Tommie Smith was even discharged from the Army because of his un-American actions. Un-American? First Amendment anyone?
In his 1971 autobiography, Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball and one of the game’s most beloved stars, said the following; “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” Yes, Jackie Robinson did stand when the song was played before games. It was 1947 when Jackie came into the league and he retired in 1957. For a black man during this time to not have stood during the playing of the National Anthem would not have meant the end of his career but the end of his life.
When did we start playing the National Anthem at sporting events? In the late 1800’s you might have heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” played occasionally at baseball games. As well as other songs such as “America the Beautiful”, “Hail, Columbia” or “My County. Tis Of Thee”. All of that changed on September 5, 1918.
During the seventh inning stretch of game one of the World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, the U.S. Navy band played the National Anthem. News reports from that day recall how the crowd was somber and a heaviness hung over the game. There was good reason for the somberness. The day before the game, a bomb exploded in Chicago killing four people and injuring dozens more. Since entering World War I in April of 1917 one hundred thousand U.S. soldiers had lost their lives and there appeared to be no end in sight to the ongoing war. So, on that somber day in September, the U.S. Navy band played the National Anthem. Fred Thomas, a member of the Navy on furlough so he could play in the game, was an infielder for the Red Sox. When he heard the song being played he immediately turned and saluted the flag. Other players faced the flag and placed their hand over their heart. The crowd was already standing because it was the seventh inning stretch so they simply began to sing. When the song was finished the once somber crowd erupted into thunderous applause by all accounts. The event that transpired was so moving, Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, opened each of the World Series games in Boston with it. At the end of World War II Elmer Layden, then commissioner of the NFL, ordered it to be played before every game.
In time the patriotism wore off and in 1954 Baltimore Orioles general manager Arthur Ehlers stopped playing the song before games. Ehlers considered people talking and laughing during the playing of the National Anthem to be disrespectful. Ehlers decision to stop playing the song only lasted a month, when he came under pressure from the city of Baltimore to reinstate the playing of the Anthem, because Fort McHenry which is what was being sung about in the song is in Baltimore, Ehlers relented.
So, what do we know about the National Anthem and Francis Scott Key the man who wrote it? The words in “The Star-Spangled Banner” are from the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry.” Francis Scott Key wrote the poem on September 14, 1814 after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British the night before during the battle of Baltimore. The words of the song are set to “To Anacreon in Heaven” a British song about drunkenness and womanizing. The song is not one verse (which is all we sing) but four verses in length. The third verse contains the lines, “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”. Some scholars have pointed out that Francis Scott Key seemed to be taking satisfaction from the killing of slaves. During the War of 1812 the British promised runaway slave’s portions of land in British held territories if they fought against the United States. The word hireling is used to deride the British practice of using mercenaries in its army. During the American Revolution the British used German Hessians. Other scholars have pointed out that the use of the words ‘hireling and slave’ together, had been a part of English prose since Shakespeare.
Key was a lieutenant in the United States Army during the battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. The British, alongside Colonial Marines, comprised of runaway slaves won the battle. The British then marched into Washington DC. Where they burned the Library of Congress, Capitol Building and the White House.
On September 3, 1814 Key and John Stuart Skinner were sent by President James Madison under a flag of truce to secure an exchange of prisoners with the British. One of the men being held was Dr. William Beanes a friend of Keys. Beanes was being held by the British under the charge of aiding in the arrest of British soldiers. Key and Skinner meet with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane on September the 7th aboard the flagship HMS Tonnant. Over dinner, the two British officers discussed war plans, Key and Skinner made their plea for the release of Beanes. After producing letters from wounded British soldiers attesting to the fair treatment that had been received by Beanes and other Americans, Ross and Cochrane agreed. However, because Key and Skinner overheard plans for the attack on Baltimore they were detained. Key was on board the HMS Minden during the rainy night of September 13 when the bombardment commenced. The following morning the small storm flag which had been flown over the fort during the attack had been replaced by a much larger flag flying in its place. It was this image that inspired Key to pen the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” which would become the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” our National Anthem.
Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Fredricks, Maryland and the District of Columbia. President Andrew Jackson nominated him for United States Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1833 and the senate approved him that same year. He owned slaves and believed that it was every white American man’s right to do so. He defended, in court cases, black men and women seeking their freedom using a 1783 Maryland law that prevented slaveholders from other states to bring their slaves to live in Maryland. He vehemently opposed abolition. He once stood down a mob of white men who had decided to lynch (instead of trying) Arthur Bowen, a black man. It’s believed that he played a part in the Snow race riot in 1835 because of his overly aggressive prosecution of a black man accused of trying to kill his mistress. He believed that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, but then again, so did most white Americans in the 19th century. He also hated the mistreatment of slaves by slave masters and fought against the trafficking of slaves. Key along with two other men acting as administrators of the will of a friend, John Randolph who died without children, released more than 400 slaves owned by Randolph between 1833 and 1843. The freed slaves were also given portions of land in accordance to the will.
I don’t know what Francis Scott Key intended by using the words ‘hireling and slave,’ nor can anyone else because none of us are Francis Scott Key and he has been dead for 174 years; so he cannot tell us. Yes, the song conveys the patriotism he felt seeing the flag still waving above Fort McHenry that morning after being shelled all night by the British. The song says a lot not only about Francis Scott Key but us as Americans, especially those in the 19th century.
On November 19, 1863 Lincoln gave the following speech at Gettysburg;
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. -Bancroft Copy written by President Lincoln on February 29, 1864 for historian George Bancroft.
Lincoln says, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. He also says that we should, “take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” That we should be, “dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced” and be, “dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That unfinished work was that all men are created equal and by being equal thus had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what the Declaration of Independence sets forth and is the very idea that shaped this country. It is sad that we still haven’t completed this unfinished work that Lincoln charged us with 154 years ago. That Colin Kaepernick felt the need to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem to draw attention to the fact that in this country we are all still not equal is shameful. The fact that so many people are missing the point by focusing on the form of his protest and not its message is even more shameful. We have, to this point in our history, allowed the deaths of the men that gave the last full measure of their lives to this cause be in vain. The First Amendment afforded Colin Kaepernick and affords current NFL players the right to protest this injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. It also affords you the right, if you wish, to disagree with their form of protest. Their protest isn’t disrespectful to the country, flag or service men and women who have given their lives to the continued security of the rights afforded to all Americans by our Constitution. Having said that, what is disrespectful and intolerable, is to ignore the message of the protest that we as Americans are not all equal and therefore are all not free. Wake up.