It’s been a week since last week’s shame parade across professional football fields in America. In coffee shops and bars, around break rooms and dinner tables, everybody and their sister have now had their say about it. Talking heads have had theirs, too, and amongst them, two major themes found voice:
- There should be no anthem played at sporting events.
- Protesters should kneel in the locker room, then come out and stand for the anthem.
As we nursed our collective indigestion, millions of us waited to see what happened Sunday, when our publicly funded stadiums hosted a messy montage of sometime-patriotism. According to USAToday, players from the Dolpins, Bills, and Lions knelt during the anthem while the Saints, Ravens, and Jaguars knelt before its playing. The Bengals, Jets, Vikings, Panthers, and Cowboys stood.
Because I focused on how my Steelers behaved, I was proud to see them all standing once again, while Ravens who knelt were roundly booed. The Steelers won their contest with the Ravens, 26-9, and I hope it’s not lost on them what a team can do when their minds are fully on football.
What about that much-maligned anthem in the first place? Most people know only that Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.
Its role in sports is rich, and as often happens, so much of what has become our culture was unintentional. During the 1918 World Series, when our doughboys were still in Europe fighting “The War to End All Wars,” the Cubs were playing the Red Sox in Chicago, and that’s when it all began. During the seventh-inning stretch, inexplicably, the band started playing The Star Spangled Banner, and the New York Times reported that at once, electricity seemed to spark the crowd. Gone were “the yawns,” as heads were bared. By the anthem’s end, the players and crowd were singing its every word and “rent the air with a cheer.”
At Boston, Red Sox management engaged a band to play the anthem before the next three games, and before long, its performance became commonplace during special baseball games in years following. Yet, there’s no history of Blacks sitting (or kneeling) in protest, despite the fact that Woodrow Wilson had reversed Teddy Roosevelt’s orders to integrate the government and military forces, while people of color continued to be beaten and murdered throughout the South. No Chinese were caught sitting either, despite decades of anti-Chinese immigration laws. Many had legitimate, bigtime grievances, no doubt, yet they stood together and sang their respect.
The Star Spangled Banner became, officially, our national anthem on March 3, 1931, in the Hoover Administration, and in the Great Depression, when so many millions of whatever color thought God and their country had abandoned them, they stood at those sporting events where the anthem joined them as one. Economically, Black men had been doing relatively well at low-paying government contractor jobs, but that ended with the Davis-Bacon Act which ensured contractor jobs went to union men at prevailing wages. Blacks were not permitted to join those unions, however, and were tossed out of their jobs, but there are no reports of them using that further injustice to shed their patriotism.
Later, pressure on FDR to sign anti-lynching legislation was for naught, as was integration of the Armed Forces in WWII, yet Black women and men stood when the anthem was played before every football and baseball game. Deep racial injustice did not keep Blacks, Japanese, and others of color from serving their country, and whenever The Star Spangled Banner filled the air, they stood—proudly.
In the years before and since Brown v Board of Education, they stood. They stood during Vietnam era, as I stood in uniform and saw for myself at Mets Stadium Labor Day weekend in 1968—despite Martin Luther King’s assassination by a white supremacist just a few months earlier.
It’s been that way since WWI, in fact, right through 9/11, as Americans remained one nation, under God. Someone once predicted democracy would fall, not following a decisive battle, but as the result of a thousand cuts to its principles. Such cracks in our unity began when Progressives sought revenge after the Bush-Gore election in 2000. Since then, they have pushed prayer out of public life, shoved the Ten Commandments into every courthouse trashbin, sought to remove religious holidays from our consciousness, cleansed our schoolbooks of American exceptionalism, derided the power of an Almighty, yet catered to religious extremists seeking to destroy us. Every day, they grind away at our Constitution’s values, vandalize the reputations of our Founders, and strive to limit our most basic rights. Nevertheless, we stand.
For the rest of us, who come from all races and religions, from all rungs on the economic ladder, we stand for our national anthem because for over 240 years we have been one people, not one of us ever truly free from the daily injustices of the human condition. To kneel, then, is to submit. To rise together, to stand as one, we know we can build tomorrows better than our todays—for all of us.
For purveyors of racial, class, and social warfare, know this: We will stand, but we will never stand aside for those who continue to divide us.