This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Black Power salute given by Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos as the American anthem played during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games. Their quiet nonviolent protest earned them loud and widespread criticism, death threats and suspension from the U.S track team. Tommie Smith later said: “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country . . . I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.” But the reaction to their stance has clear parallels fifty years later.
The start of this year’s football season and Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in an advertising campaign reignited the debate over whether athletes should be castigated for respectfully kneeling or engaging in silent nonviolent protest during the national anthem to protest racial and social injustice in America. The debate also raises other questions about whether the national anthem itself is beyond free expression of speech and reproach—and whether “The Star Spangled Banner” has ever been a universal symbol of a “land of the free” for all. After all its author Francis Scott Key embodied some of the profoundly unjust contradictions endemic to our young nation, especially the role of slavery in a nation allegedly founded on the premise of all men being created equal. Where were we women and people of color and Native Americans whose lands were stolen and pillaged by White settlers?
Key was born three years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence into a wealthy slave-owning family in Maryland. He owned slaves himself and freed some but not all during his lifetime. A deeply religious man, he argued against slave trafficking and once asked, “Where else, except in slavery, was ever such a bed of torture prepared by man for man?” But instead of fighting to end slavery in our land Key was a founder and officer of the American Colonization Society which encouraged free Blacks in America to emigrate to Africa. That organization included some members who believed slavery was wrong but also many who were simply alarmed by the growing numbers of freed and former slaves. They shared an inability to envision or embrace an America where free Blacks and Whites could peacefully coexist together.
As a lawyer working in Washington, D.C. who was eventually appointed U.S. Attorney for Washington by President Andrew Jackson, Key represented pro bono several slaves suing for their freedom but he also represented slaveowners suing to have runaway “property” returned. And Key was the prosecutor in one of the most sensational cases of his time which began when 18-year-old slave Arthur Bowen stumbled into his White mistress’s bedroom carrying an ax after a night of drinking. Although he did not threaten or attack anyone, he was quickly arrested on charges of attempted murder. Outrage over his “crime” led to several nights of race riots in Washington. Key sought the death penalty for Arthur although Arthur’s mistress said from the beginning she did not think he meant to hurt her and later successfully pleaded for Arthur’s pardon.
Key then gained national attention by prosecuting White doctor Reuben Crandall for sedition and inciting insurrection during the rioting after Arthur’s arrest—arguing that Crandall was an abolitionist who hoped to provoke violence by distributing antislavery literature. During that trial Crandall’s defense attorneys quoted some of Key’s own writings about the evils of slavery, but a Washington Post feature on the case explains that Key doubled down and “appealed to the all-white jury’s sense of supremacy: ‘Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country; to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the Abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro?’” Crandall was acquitted but he died soon after of tuberculosis contracted while he was in jail for eight months awaiting trial. It’s small wonder that during Key’s lifetime antislavery advocates already viewed his famous lyrics with skepticism and argued the “home of the brave” was actually the “home of the oppressed.”
Key also argued vehemently against the War of 1812 because of his religious beliefs but served anyway and was part of a delegation negotiating a prisoner exchange when he found himself on a ship in Baltimore harbor watching the pivotal overnight battle that moved him to write a poem about what he had seen. Those words set to the tune of a popular drinking song ultimately became “The Star Spangled Banner.” Today the most commonly sung first verse seems to glorify the battle without capturing any of Key’s earlier antiwar ambivalence. It is one more example of the contradictions inherent in our national anthem and national life.
More than two hundred years after it was written many Americans believe the anthem remains a symbol of contradictions still so present in our national life. This brings us full circle to the current debate over whether kneeling during the anthem is a respectful and appropriate way to call attention to the ways our nation still falls short of its professed ideals. As I wrote last year, as one of many, many hundreds of thousands of people who protested, went to jail, marched, sat and—yes—knelt during the Civil Rights Movement, I applaud athletes and anyone using their visible public platform to nonviolently protest still-present racial and gender injustice as a result of our national birth defects embodied in Native American genocide, slavery and exclusion of women and non-propertied White men from the electoral process. Nonviolent protesters are carrying on the morally courageous legacy of nonviolent protest so desperately needed today across our nation and world.
Americans standing up or kneeling down to insist our nation live up to her founding creed of liberty and justice for all are standing on the shoulders of moral giants and dissenters throughout America’s history. Every single movement for equality and justice in America from our revolution for independence through our struggles to end slavery, end Jim Crow discrimination against people of color, expand women’s rights, establish LGBT rights and more has faced loud, dangerous, and often violent opposition. There have always been people in power who condemn as un-American any and all forms of protest and any challenge to our nation’s economic, racial, gender-based and other inequities however unjust. Peaceful, nonviolent, prayerful and sustained protest is needed and will always be appropriate in a nation still aspiring to live up to its promise as the land of the free and whose currency says “In God We Trust.”
It’s time to stand up to those who seek to hijack our professed values of liberty and justice for all. I believe honoring God’s call for justice for all God’s children trumps the national anthem created by a slave owner and which symbolizes our nation’s profound birth defects. Our times cry out for a new song and a new politics in a nation and world desperately hungering for moral and just leadership and for an end to the cries of millions of war, poverty and hunger ridden children in our boastfully wealthy nation where in 2017, 12.8 million children lived in poverty and the three richest billionaires in America held more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of Americans. We must create now a just world safe and fit for every child and human being. And sustained strategic nonviolent protest is a powerful way to reach our efforts to make America become a truly just nation.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.