In September of 1814, 35 year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key found himself an involuntary guest (prisoner) of the British Royal Navy aboard a warship in Chesapeake Bay, from which he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. That experience inspired him to write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” which was set to the tune of a popular British song “To Anacreon in Heaven” and later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On March 4, 1931, that song became the official National Anthem of the United States of America.
Many people may not be aware that The Star Spangled Banner is a real flag, and that it can be viewed today at the National Museum of American History in Washington. Originally referred to as the Great Garrison Flag and commissioned by Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, to be “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance,” it was literally humongous — 30 feet high by 42 feet wide. It was created to make a strong statement of defiance to a powerful enemy that had invaded the new nation and set fire to its capital. It was a symbol of unity and determined opposition to tyranny. It must have been quite a sight indeed to see it still flying in the early dawn as the smoke cleared from the terrifying attacks of the previous night.
We pay tribute to that flag and that spirit when we sing that song while facing the current version of our flag. It is fitting that we do so in the context of athletic contests, which are in many ways the peaceful and more socially acceptable manifestations of warrior combat. In that act, we celebrate all that we are and have been as a nation, warts and all. We celebrate our aspiration to be one unified nation while retaining our identities as individuals — E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one).
I know I am not alone in being troubled by the recent controversies around many aspects of our national culture which have long seemed established and non-controversial, the latest being refusal on the part of some athletes to stand during the singing of the national anthem. I have no quarrel with their freedom to express their personal views, political or otherwise — in fact, our flag reminds us of the many men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that all of us can enjoy the liberty to speak freely. But I do object to the visual hijacking of sports events to make political statements. There are many opportunities and venues available to exercise one’s right of free speech that do not impose on the rights of others to enjoy their entertainment — especially when they have paid for that entertainment. Those wishing to protest can and should be able to do so, but on their own time, not ours.
It is curious to me that one manner of protest is to “take a knee” during the singing of the national anthem. Clearly, that gesture is not intended as a sign of reverence; I read it as rejection. Yet what does that rejection signify? A rejection of the courage and valor of the defenders of Fort McHenry? A rejection of the in-your-face symbolism of defiance to tyranny represented by the Great Garrison Flag? It seems more like an act of submission — the exact opposite of what our forebears were looking to communicate when they hoisted that massive flag up the pole in the face of the enemy. If the true intention of the protesters is to highlight areas where we as a nation fall short of our aspiration for unity, then the correct response is to stand. To stand with everyone else in acknowledgement of the fact that we all must work together, everyday, to make our culture and our nation worthy of its citizens — past, present and future. To do otherwise is to be on the wrong side of the fight.