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The History of the National Anthem and the "Taking-a-Knee" Sports Controversy

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

Colin Kaepernick in 2013.

Colin Kaepernick in 2013.

The controversy over standing or kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before sporting events all started in the pre-season of the 2016 National Football League (NFL) when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem in protest for what he deems as wrongdoings against African-Americans and minorities in the United States. In an interview, Kaepernick explained his rationale for the protest:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Since then, the controversy has continued and gotten louder. At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on September 22, 2017, President Donald Trump implored NFL owners to fire any player who protests during the national anthem. He told owners to "get that son of a bitch off the field." Trump’s statement was promptly condemned by players and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. And the Twitter storm began with several tweets from the president and his opposition.

Via Twitter, Donald Trump said: "If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!" The tweet was posted at 5:44 AM - Sep 24, 2017.

Former Democratic Representative of Maryland, Donna Edwards, tweeted that she hopes all NFL players kneel during the national anthem on Sunday in response to President Trump's remarks attacking Colin Kaepernick. Edwards, who left Congress earlier this year, is no friend of the president and called Trump a "white supremacist who squats in our White House" in her tweet, which said: "On Sunday, I hope every @NFL player takes a knee in solidarity w @Kaepernick7 against the white supremacist who squats in our White House."

The Controversy and the National Anthem

No matter which side of the argument you are on, whether you feel that when an athlete takes a knee during the singing of the national anthem it denigrates the flag and the country or does the act make a statement for the mistreatment of people of color, it would be a good time to take a step back and understand the history of America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and understand its origin.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

The man who wrote what became America’s national anthem, Francis Scott Key, was born on his family’s 2,800-acre estate near Fredrick County, Maryland, on August 1, 1779. Key and his family moved to Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, in 1803. The Keys were a religious family and active members of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Francis followed in his father’s footsteps and became a prominent lawyer in the Frederick, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., areas. Key assisted his uncle, also a lawyer, Philip Barton Key, in the sensational conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr and made many arguments before the United States Supreme Court during his career.

Attack on Fort McHenry.

Attack on Fort McHenry.

The War of 1812

Relationships between England the United States grew increasingly tense and culminated in what we now call now the War of 1812. As the war between America and its old master and adversary drug on, England got a boost when they defeated France in 1814, which allowed the British to focus their mighty war machine on their former colony. American forces had a significant presence in Baltimore as they felt this would be the main thrust of a British attack. Instead, the British landed near Washington, D.C., and managed to capture the city and burn the Capitol building and the White House. On their way back to their ships, the British arrested a physician, William Beanes, of Upper Marlborough, Maryland, for offences deemed as treachery against the British Crown.

Friends of Dr. Beanes convinced Key to negotiate a release of the physician from the British. In early September 1814, Key undertook the trip with Colonel John S. Skinner, the United States cartel agent. They sailed in a sloop and caught up with British fleet at the mouth of the Potomac on September 7. After negotiations with the British, Beanes was released. However, since they had overheard the British plans to launch a full-scale attack on Baltimore, their departure was delayed. Key, Skinner, Beanes, and their crew of eleven men were returned to their sloop under guard. Aboard their small ship, Key and his group would travel behind the British fleet, arriving in Baltimore on Sunday, September 11. Over the next two days, the British off-loaded troops on North Point for a flank attack on the city while the warships took positions to bombard Fort McHenry. The British knew if they could capture the fort, the city of Baltimore would fall easily into their hands. If Washington, D.C., had been unprepared for the British onslaught, the people of Baltimore were just the opposite—dug in and ready for a fight

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The British war ships formed a semicircle around the fort and commenced bombing the fort on September 13. The shelling of the fort would continue for the next twenty-four hours. The contrails of the rockets from the British glared red across the sky. The mortars, with their fuses timed to explode above the fort and rain down hot shrapnel and death upon those below, appeared as giant fireworks bursting in the night sky. In the early dawn hours, as the eastern sky began to glow with the approaching day, the cannon fire ceased, and the smoke of battle cleared, Key could see in the distance a large American flag still flying defiantly over Fort McHenry. It was there that Key, inspired by the resilient Americans, put his pen to the back of a letter he found in his pocket and wrote down his patriotic feelings in a first draft of what would be called “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The British, not willing to invest any more men or material to capture Baltimore, set sail south for the port of New Orleans.

The Star-Spangled Banner Is Born

Two days later, back in Baltimore, Key refined his poem into the version we see today:

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hail’d at the twilights last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

His poem was published in two Baltimore newspapers and quickly gained popularity, and was reprinted in newspapers across the country. The words were set to the tune of the popular English song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Before the year was out, Key’s song had been published in a popular magazine, The Analectic Magazine, and in three songbooks. Key’s song was renamed a year later as the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Over the years, the patriotic song became more popular, was performed regularly across the country, and was accepted by the Union Army during the Civil War. Late in the nineteenth century, Army and Navy regulations began to require its use when circumstances called for the performance of a national anthem. President Woodrow Wilson signed an Executive Order in 1916 which required military bands to play the song as the national anthem. It would take until 1931 before Congress would formally recognize the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States. The language of the legislation was rather vague and didn’t spell out the exact wording of the song, which has led to innumerable variations of the melody and we still don’t have an “official” version of the anthem.

Vintage copy of the Star-Spangled Banner sheet music.

Vintage copy of the Star-Spangled Banner sheet music.


After reading about the history of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" it is clear that it was written during a time of war and had nothing to do with racism. For those interested in protesting systemic racism in America, the national anthem is innocent and should be treated with respect.


  • Bornerman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. Harper Perennial. 2004.
  • Wyche, Steve. “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem” NFL Media reporter. August 27, 2016.
  • Hill, Richard. “Star-Spangled Banner.” Collier’s Encyclopedia. Volume 21. 1966.
  • West, Doug. America’s Second War of Independence: A Short History of the War of 1812. C&D Publications. 2018.

© 2017 Doug West

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