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National Anthem

‘The Star-Spangled Banner’s’ racist lyrics reflect its slave owner author, Francis Scott Key

His role in sustaining slavery adds another layer to the Kaepernick kneeling controversy

Francis Scott Key and Colin Kaepernick are perfect opposites in a drama of privilege versus protest in America.

Key, an elite insider and author of the national anthem, helped a president down a dark path to defend slavery. Kaepernick, the outsider, is the former NFL quarterback banished from the realm for kneeling during the lofty victory song that Key wrote under a battle-stained sky in 1814.

Never has more attention been paid to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played and sung at every major sporting event. Now the national symbols, the flag and the song, remain at the center of controversy. And as the NFL season gets underway, sides are being drawn in a renewed battle over free speech and nonviolent resistance among legions of sports fans.

Whatever side you’re on, we all need to know the roots of “The Star-Spangled Banner” anthem run deep in slavery’s soil. How deep is seldom told.

For the record, Kaepernick’s peaceful protest was aimed at police brutality toward black men. His actions, joined by other players, drew President Donald Trump’s fury and divided public opinion.

It might seem like Key is up past his historical bedtime. But the backstory and crosscurrents of the anthem are as unresolved as the NFL player challenges still likely to come on game days.

Whatever side you’re on, we all need to know the roots of “The Star-Spangled Banner” run deep in slavery’s soil. How deep is seldom told.

Lawyer-poet Key, born to massive slaveholding wealth in Maryland, was one of the richest men in America. He liked it that way.

As he grew older and darker, Key sought to buttress slavery, known as our own “peculiar institution.” He did just that, past his last breath. The U.S. Supreme Court, which he helped shape, stood strongly for slavery. So beside the anthem, his political legacy as a critical political player in upholding slavery is devastating.

In his 50s, Key became an adviser to President Andrew Jackson, who was also a wealthy self-made Southern slaveholder.

At the same time, Key was named by Jackson as the U.S. district attorney for the nation’s capital, where he prosecuted race and slavery laws to the fullest extent, even to the death penalty. He also aggressively prosecuted early abolitionists, who had founded the anti-slavery movement in 1833.

Key often whispered in the ear of Jackson, the plantation owner in the White House. When he wasn’t shouting, Jackson listened. Jackson’s presidency brought brutal, racially motivated mob violence like never before, including a race riot in Washington, D.C. Jackson had no sympathy for mobs, but even less for slaves and free blacks.

Then came the worst cut of all: Key prevailed on Jackson to name Key’s own brother-in-law, Roger Taney, to the Cabinet and then to the ultimate prize: chief justice of the United States.

To be tied to the infamous Taney is a serious stain on Key’s rosy reputation. Like Key, Taney was a native of Maryland, a state steeped in slavery, where Frederick Douglass was born. Taney and Key were friends before Roger met and married Key’s sister. That’s how small the antebellum South was for wealthy white men.

Roundly hated north of the Mason-Dixon line, Taney lived long enough to author the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court opinion, the most starkly racist high court decision in history. Taney struck down the argument that free blacks could become citizens in free states like Illinois and further declared that all blacks, whether slave or free, were never entitled to any rights, period.

The Dred Scott ruling landed as a public outrage. Historians consider it a catalyst for the Civil War, which broke out four years later. Taney swore in Abraham Lincoln as president in 1861, a face-to-face breaking point between the nation’s past and future.

Key illustrates how the antebellum South lost that game. His elegant life started out well and was winning at halftime, like the dashing Confederacy itself. The War of 1812 came to his city port of Baltimore and the new nation won the day. His poem told the story, sparking unity and spirit for post-Revolutionary generations.

Kindly put, Key was a nation-builder who lost luster later in life. Perhaps his association with the fierce Jackson turned his character unkind, darker and harder. Like many upper-crust slave owners, including James Madison, Key claimed to favor colonization, shipping free blacks to Africa.

It’s worth looking at Key in better days. At St. John’s College in Annapolis, he played lots of schoolboy pranks. Good-looking and confident, he had a gift for scribbling verse, which he put to good use at age 35, in the crepuscular light of day.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” hails the huge battle flag flying over Fort McHenry after dawn broke and smoke cleared above Baltimore’s waters after a night of British naval bombardment. Key witnessed the scene from a neutral vessel and composed his patriotic poem in the rush of victory that very morning. A sensation, it swept the streets, sung to the tune of an English drinking song.

Pride was palpable. Baltimore saved the early republic after the British army sacked Washington. Madison fled the empty capital, riding ahead of the redcoats, who feasted in the White House before setting fire to it. Baltimore blocked the British advance up the Eastern Seaboard, and the bard bottled the moment. The song was named the national anthem more than 100 years later. If only that were the happy end of the tale. From the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

No refuge could save the hireling & 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 & the home of the brave.

This verse is hardly ever sung these days, but there it is.

Kaepernick, the biracial former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who set off protests over racial injustice on football fields across America, has not singled out Key, nor has slavery entered the fray.

Yet, Kaepernick’s protest puts Key’s privilege into a clearer, harsher light, showing the white supremacy of the national anthem, its author and the legacy that America must not forget.

Jamie Stiehm is a Washington columnist for Creators Syndicate, covering national politics and history. She is also a public speaker. Previously, she reported for The Baltimore Sun and The Hill newspapers.