“My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” said hammer thrower and activist Gwen Berry in retort to the backlash following her turning her back to the American flag as the national anthem was being played at the U.S. Olympic Trials on 29 June 2021. Competitors DeAnna Price, who won first place, and Brooke Andersen, second place winner, put their hands over their hearts and faced the flag. “I’m here to represent those … who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today,” she said. It wasn’t the first time she was protesting. In 2019, Berry had protested racial injustice on the medal stand during the Pan American Games in Lima by raising her fist at the end of the national anthem. It fetched her a year-long probation that was eventually overturned.
Berry isn’t the first to have spoken out against Civil Liberties issues in the U.S. and will not be the last either. In 2016, it was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who decided not to stand for the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” had said Kaepernick in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
And, by taking a stand for civil rights, Kaepernick, joined the NBA’s Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and several WNBA players in using their platform and status to raise awareness of issues affecting minorities in the U.S.
Why, even Boxer Muhammad Ali, citing religious reasons, refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967 and was stripped of his world title and had his New York State Athletic Commission boxing title revoked. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith who won gold and bronze medals for the United States at the 1968 Olympic Games, had raised their black-gloved fists as The Star-Spangled Banner was played and were expelled by the International Olympic Committee.
Even baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson couldn’t bring himself to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. He said, “There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Rickey, whom Jackie referred to, was the white executive who signed Robinson and supported him in a demonstration of sorts that the color barrier was broken. Yet, Robinson calls out Mr Rickey’s ‘drama’ saying, “(he) could not have done what he did without the aid of white people like Rickey.”
The Star-Spangled Banner, as history tells all, was written by Francis Scott Key who was a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812 and wrote it while watching the American troops battle back the invading British in Baltimore. But, there is a lot more to it than historians and populist media churn out. For one, Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and like most “enlightened men at the time,” not against slavery. He believed that since blacks were mentally inferior, their masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. And, he supported sending free blacks (not slaves) back to Africa. If that wasn’t pro-slavery, anti-black and anti-abolitionist, what was.
In a ‘seemingly-nationalist slant,’ Key stood opposed to the idea of the Colonial Marines – a battalion of runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. While the desperate bid by the slaves to free themselves, when they shouldn’t have been enslaved in the very first place, is glossed over conveniently by most historians, they serve a ‘terrifying example of what slaves would do if given the chance’ and quashes the entire narrative of the white superiority that Key-like men were obsessed with.
So, it all came to a boil on 24 August 1814, at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Key, serving as a lieutenant at the time, ran into a battalion of Colonial Marines. With his troops, Key was taken by the very blacks he disdained, and he fled to safety across the Potomac River to his home in Georgetown. Following their victory in Bladensburg, the British troops then marched into Washington, D.C., burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building and the White House.
A little later, in September 1815, Key begged for the release of one of his friends, a doctor named William Beanes and, while on a boat observing the bloody battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on 13 September 1814 where America lost the battle but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British, was inspired to write ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Of controversy here is the full third stanza he wrote where he decried the former slaves who were now working for the British army:
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.
Key said the blood of all the former slaves and ‘hireling’ on the battlefield would wash away the ‘pollution’ of the British invaders.
That the Black strife for their Civil Liberties continues over the years in the U.S. is deplorable and tokenism persists despite the ‘Representation’ and ‘Equal Rights’ is only underlined by the fact that the third stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner symbolises the hate for Blacks, deep-seated legacy of slavery and reeks of White supremacy, even 200 years after its inception. The 19th-century poem has run its course as the American national song.
Why, Key – the slaveholding lawyer from a Maryland Plantation family – used his own office as the District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833 to 1840 to defend slavery and attack the abolitionist movement in several high-profile cases is also overlooked by most contemporary analysts.
While those standing up for their rights by demonstrating against the U.S. Anthem are swiftly banned from future performances, stripped of awards, and flayed for a portrayal of anti-patriotic fervour, the U.S. must do more to shed a legacy that is peppered with bias and hate, and all associated. Persisting with the third stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner that symbolises the birth of all that’s American, displays a deep-rooted allegiance to a Hate-filled legacy. And, for starters, that must change!