To the Editor,
Under the guise of the now popular American phrase “inclusion,” student leaders at a California high school in Ramona, California have banned our country’s National Anthem from being played at school events and rallies. An associated student body in the San Francisco Bay area has labeled the “Star-Spangled Banner” as racist, and blacklisted the song from being played at school events.
This is all because of the third verse of the National Anthem, which is rarely played and unknown to most people. The line says “no refuge could save the hirelings and slaves from the terror of the flight or the gloom of the grave.”
Some have interpreted this to refer to slaves fighting with the British who offered them freedom in return. I’ve always interpreted the phrase to refer to the hirelings (paid civilian employees) and slaves who worked at Fort McHenry and had no weapons to defend themselves from the British soldiers who were told to give no quarter.
For that matter, there were a number of African Americans who served in the ranks of both the American Army and British Army as soldiers. I think it might be worthwhile for students, and if not them, then their teachers, to look into Francis Scott Key’s history in the early 1800s.
He owned seven slaves that he freed – one, named Clem Johnson, stayed with him as a paid employee. This was decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1820 a U.S. revenue cutter captured the slave ship Antelope off the coast of Florida with nearly 300 African slaves.
Francis Scott Key was the defense attorney for these African slaves – and this was at his own expense – engaging in what turned out to be a five-year battle, finally arguing the case before the Supreme Court in 1825. He went on about the unthinkable conditions in which the slaves were held. It was an affront to the law, as well as laws of nature. He looked the six Justices in the face, four of them were slave-owners, and announced that by law of nature, all men were free.
Further, if the United States had captured a ship full of white captives, Key asked, “Would not our Courts assume them to be free? How could it be any different simply because the captives were black?”
Considered one of the most shameful decisions of the Supreme Court, they sadly denied the case stating that slaves were property. Only a portion of the slaves was returned to Africa where they formed the colony of New Georgia in Liberia. Key himself raised $11,000 in support of that effort – that in today’s money would be $222,000.
Later, in 1841, two years before his death, Francis Scott Key helped John Quincy Adams free 53 African slaves in the slave ship Amistad case.
We should judge a man by the content of his character, as Dr. Martin Luther King advised, not the interpretation of an ambiguous lyric in a song.
Retired former director of the Veterans Service Agency of Rockland