The NFL has announced that it will be playing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voce And Sing,” before games in the next season. Writer Christopher Wilson, from the Smithsonian Museum, poses this important question: where is the debate regarding slave holding legacy of Francis Scott Keyes–who wrote the Star Spangled Banner.
In 1814, Key was a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, who thanks to a system of human bondage had grown rich and powerful. When he wrote the poem that would, in 1931, become the national anthem and proclaim our nation “the land of the free,” like Jefferson, Key not only profited from slaves, he harbored racist conceptions of American citizenship and human potential. Africans in America, he said, were: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
A few weeks after British troops in the War of 1812 stunned and demoralized America by attacking Washington and setting the Capitol building and the White House ablaze on August 24, 1814; the British turned their attention to the vital seaport of Baltimore…
Ironically, while Key was composing the line “O’er the land of the free,” it is likely that Black slaves were trying to reach British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the Union Jack than they were under the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Additionally, Key used his office as the District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833 to 1840 to defend slavery, attacking the abolitionist movement in several high-profile cases.
In the mid-1830s, the movement was gaining momentum and with it came increased violence, particularly from pro-slavery mobs attacking free blacks and white abolitionists, and other methods to silence the growing cries for abolition. In a House of Representatives and United States Senate inundated with petitions from abolitionists calling for the ending or restriction of slavery, pro-slavery Congressmen looked for a way to suppress the voices of abolitionists.
In 1836, the House passed a series of “gag rules” to table all anti-slavery petitions and prevent them from being read or discussed, raising the ire of people like John Quincy Adams, who saw restricting debate an assault on a basic First Amendment right of citizens to protest and petition.