In the last few weeks, Colin Kaepernick took the nation by storm. It was only a matter of time before he turned up in the opinion section of the Record. “Taking a Stand While Sitting Down” (Sept. 14, 2016) addressed Kaepernick and his critics in a well-executed attack on blind patriotism. However, while the writer did make some sound points, I vehemently disagree with his conclusion and a number of the assertions he used to get there.
Kaepernick has made some provocative claims lately about the National Anthem and the man who wrote it. Echoing these assertions, “Taking a Stand” referenced Francis Scott Key’s “strong support for slavery as an institution.” However, Key’s views on slavery, like the views of many in the founding generation, were actually more complex. While Key did argue in court on behalf of slave owners, he also provided free legal services to slaves suing for their freedom. He also once stood down a lynch mob that wanted to hang a black man before he had his trial. While these examples do not justify parts of Key’s past that modern audiences find objectionable, they do give us a better perspective on Key and his legacy.
Second, the piece suggests that Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner to celebrate the defeat of a British regiment made up of freed slaves. The article presents this as fact while in actuality Scott’s intent is unclear and the lyrics said to ridicule blacks fighting for the British are ambiguous. Some historians have said that this was a reference to the British practice of press ganging sailors. In truth, Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” to celebrate American troops — some of whom were escaped slaves and freed blacks — defending Fort McHenry against an enormous British attack. At the risk of sounding like the overly patriotic zealot that I am, I’d say that there is no better symbol for America’s founding than this portrait immortalized in song of a motley band of brothers fighting against all odds for their freedom and the freedom of their young nation.
Speaking of symbols, I would like provide a counterpoint to some of the writer’s statements on the subject. “Taking a Stand” quotes University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven on the importance of a “common bond — some symbol [the American Flag] that reminds us of our past struggles and propels us to a brighter, more enlightened future.” In response, the op-ed concludes that Martin Luther King “didn’t need a symbol to give his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” What the piece neglects to mention is that King was very patriotic and understood the necessity of a common bond to unite all Americans. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King called on America to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” He called on all Americans to celebrate the “magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence” by fighting to make the ideals they espoused realities. King never rejected America; instead, he implored people to live up to its ideals — he held America to its promises of freedom.
King once said, “I criticize America because I love her.” In a time of national questioning, when Americans are perhaps more divided than ever, this is what we all must say. We must salute the idealism that created America, and, like King, we must work to make those dreams reality. This cause is our common bond.
Our flag and our anthem — two inseparable symbols of American idealism — remind us of this promise to bring about a “more perfect Union.” By what authority? Our flag flew over Abu Ghraib and Japanese internment camps; it was stitched on the fatigues of the men at My Lai. But it was also carried into battle by Union soldiers at Gettysburg. It was waved by suffragettes as they marched through New York. It flew behind King as he gave his famous address and it flew over Fort McHenry on that misty morning. Our flag has flown over it all and it reminds us of it all. It reminds us of where we have been and where we can go.
King closed his “I Have a Dream” speech prophesizing “the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” I look forward to that day too, but if we are to get there, we must never stop singing.
Cooper Bramble ’20 is from South Portland, Maine. He lives in Williams Hall.