The U.S. National Anthem: What Are The Lyrics And What Is Their Meaning? Song Called ‘Racist’ — Here’s Why

With the controversy this past weekend over National Football League players choosing to kneel during the pre-game rendition of the United States national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” new questions have been raised not only about the protests — which began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers then-quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel in protest of racism in America and specifically against police shootings of black citizens — but about the anthem itself.

What are the full lyrics of the song and what do they mean? Specifically, are the words to the national anthem, as some critics have charged, themselves “tainted by racism?”

“The Star Spangled Banner” was originally written as a four-stanza poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” The word “defense” was generally spelled with a “c” back in 1814, when a Maryland lawyer and sometime poet named Francis Scott Key composed the verses at the age of 35. At the time, the young United States had been embroiled in a two-year war with Great Britain — a war that started with a failed U.S. invasion of Canada, which was then a British colony.

The British retaliated by launching an invasion of the fledgling United States in 1814, burning and bombing their way through the southeast, all the way to the young nation’s capital in Washington D.C.

The U.S. National Anthem: What Are The Lyrics And What Is Their Meaning? Song Called 'Racist' — Here's Why
An 1805 portrait of Francis Scott Key, who nine years later would pen a poem that would later become the U.S. national anthem. [Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

The invading British launched a sustained, 25-hour attack on Fort McHenry, a U.S. military stronghold in Baltimore, Maryland. Key witnessed the brutal battle, and when the poet saw the American flag still flying after the withering bombardment, meaning that the Americans had held off the far superior British military, Key was inspired to pen his now-immortal poem. See the full lyrics to all four verses of The Star Spangled Banner by clicking on this link. Readers should pay particular attention to the third verse, which will be be discussed below in this article.

The poem was published in The Baltimore Patriot newspaper with instructions that it should be sung to the tune of a traditional, and rather bawdy, English drinking song titled To Anacreon In Heaven. But it would be another 117 years before the song, by then known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” was officially adopted as the United States national anthem.

The first time the song was played at a sporting event, however, came in 1918 during the first game of that year’s baseball World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs — a series played against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in World War I — a time when baseball players were subjected to public outrage and scorn for staying in the country to play a game rather than enlisting for the war effort in Europe.

The patriotic song, played during the seventh inning of the lackluster and poorly attended World Series game, was an ingenious public relations move, granting a sheen of patriotism to an otherwise ordinary sporting event. The playing of the song roused the crowd at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, creating a sensation that sent a buzz of excitement across the country

Baseball, and other sports, immediately grasped the PR value of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and the song — at least the first of Key’s four verses — was played regularly at sports events from then onward through its eventual adoption as the national anthem in 1931.

The U.S. National Anthem: What Are The Lyrics And What Is Their Meaning? Song Called 'Racist' — Here's Why
Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers (c) and teammates Eli Harold (l),and Eric Reid (r) kneed during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racism — but the lyrics to the song itself have also been called racist. [Image by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]

But there was a problem. In addition to often being subject to criticism for its celebration of militarism, even in the standard single-verse version, a look down to to the third verse reveals the song as, critics say, crudely and cruelly racist as well.

The third verse contains the following lines, which celebrate not just a military victory, but the killing and forcible return of freed slaves to their so-called “owners.”

“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.”

What inspired Key to include those lines, shocking today in their apparent racism? In 1814, the abolition of slavery was still a distant 41 years in the future, and would take another bloody war on U.S. soil — the Civil War — to bring about. But during the War of 1812, British troops storming through the south freed many slaves and formed them into a fighting battalion known as the Colonial Marines. And unlike the treatment they received from their American captors, the British accepted the freed slaves as equals, equipping them and paying them identically to other British troops.

The Colonial Marines fought fiercely on the British side against their former slaveholders, and just weeks before the Battle of Fort McHenry, the Marines took part in a crushing defeat of U.S. forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, another battle witnessed first-hand by Key who was an aide to a U.S. general at the time. The corps of emancipated former slaves then marched on Washington with the British troops — and proceeded to burn down the White House.

At the end of the war in 1815, the U.S. government demanded the return of the freed slaves, but in the majority of cases, the British refused, instead allowing more than 4,000 former slaves to emigrate to British colonies, with hundreds settling on the Caribbean island of Trinidad where their descendants still reside today.

The greatest rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is generally considered to have been performed by an African-American, the late pop star Whitney Houston (pictured at top of this page), at the NFL’s 25th Super Bowl in 1991.

[Featured Image By George Rose/Getty Images]