The Star-Spangled Banner was written in 1814 but did not become the national anthem of the U.S. until 1931 when President Herbert Hoover made it so. It took 117 years.
Did racist lyrics cause the holdup and its rejection as the national anthem?
According to moguldom.com, after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812, 35-year-old lawyer Francis Scott Key was inspired to write a poem. It was soon after that the lyrics were applied to the tune of an existing song.
The song was originally called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry.”
The second half of the third verse ends like this: “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.”
When Key wrote these lyrics, the British military had a regiment of former American slaves called the Colonial Marines. These were slaves the British had encouraged to escape and fight for them.
There is some debate as to what Key’s words “hireling” and “slave” were referring to and if they were meant to be racist.
Some say “slave” refers to U.S. sailors who had been seized and forced to serve the British Navy, The Intercept reported. Others say they reference the former slaves fighting on the side of the British.
“The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of Black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom,” said Mark Clague, an expert on the anthem and a musicologist at the University of Michigan, in a 2016 New York Times interview.
Post-Reconstruction white Southerners and the military grew to like Key’s anthem. “In the early 20th Century, all but the first verse were cut — not for their racism, but for their anti-British bent. The United Kingdom was by then an ally,” The Washington Post reported.
The debate over Key’s lyrics still continues.
“During reconstruction, the Star Spangled banner was rejected as the national Anthem for being too racist. That was in the 1800s. Let that sink in,” Great House (@xspotsdamark) tweeted on Jan. 3.
“The American national Anthem really says “We’ll kill your enslaved ancestors & wave the star spangled banner flag over their grave in triumph”, and we got Black folks proudly rocking that flag. Conquered,” Great House added.
While we may never know if Key wanted to be racist in his lyrics, the man himself was, historians say. Key descended from a wealthy plantation family who enslaved people, The Washington Post reported.
Key was tapped by President Andrew Jackson’s administration as the district attorney for Washington, D.C. In the role, he strictly enforced slave laws and prosecuted abolitionists, The Washington Post reported.
Key also persuaded Jackson to appoint his brother-in-law, Roger B. Taney, as the chief justice of the U.S. Taney is infamous for writing the historic Dred Scott court decision that decreed Black people “had no rights which the White man was bound to respect,” The Washington Post reported.