By William A. Babcock
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
That’s particularly true of America’s not-so-beloved song and lyrics the United States has had as its National Anthem since 1931.
Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” some 200 years ago. Commemorating the unsuccessful British siege of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, America’s national anthem is a glorified battle song, truly unsingable by all but the most talented vocalists.
This anthem (a word Webster describes as “a song or hymn of praise or gladness”) has perpetuated praise and protests for a number of decades, and journalists have dutifully covered it all.
Some 50 years ago Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had just placed first and third, respectively, in the Olympics 200-meter track event in Mexico City, stood on the winners’ podium, heads bowed, as the U.S. National Anthem was played. They each wore a black glove in what Smith described in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, as a “human rights salute.” Human-rights buttons, black socks (representing black poverty) and black (black pride) scarf also were worn.
And Smith and Carlos were booed by some members of the crowd and death threats were received after John Dominis photo of the podium protest appeared on newspaper’s sports pages around the world.
I remembered the 1968 Olymics protest as a local reporter covering students protesting for the Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio. The students were sitting in 1973 in that community during the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events. Knowing I needed good sourcing of my story, I went to nearby Oberlin College where Smith, having retired from the Cincinnati Bengals professional football team, was an assistant professor of physical education.
He talked about the need for people — especially students — to be able to protest injustices. Of the importance of free speech. Of the need for respect. Of listening to opposing viewpoints. Of valuing human beings of all races.
I’m now left to wonder, after SIU’s administration essentially prohibited three African American cheerleaders here from kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events this fall, why even more ink and airtime and blogs and tweets are not being expended by the media to:
- Expose SIU officials and coaches for their cowardly behavior.
- Interview coaches who allowed a protesting alumni to enter the playing court.
- Interview protesting cheerleaders.
- Ask non-protesting Caucasian cheerleaders why they failed to support their protesting colleagues.
- Talk to coaches who have lied and prohibited players from protesting.
- Survey fans and alumni for their reactions.
While I realize America’s National Anthem itself is not the issue here, I can’t help wondering if things might improve were we to pick another, more appropriate anthem. And Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” comes to mind. Her poem not only patriotically mentions the pilgrims, but also admonishes: “America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.”
To quote from a 1976 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece: “The United States is the world’s most powerful economic, industrial, and military nation in a time of global inequality, hunger, and chaos. Mrs. Bates’s song (set to the hymn tune ‘Materna’) speaks for America both in its bicentennial year and in years to come. It is a hymn urging the U.S. to ‘crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea,’ instead of a martial air telling this country to ‘conquer’ and to have a flag that ‘in triumph shall wave.’… If the chosen tune were indeed ‘America the Beautiful,’ other nations might see this as an indication the U.S., in some small way, was learning and profiting from its recent past.”
That “recent past” then was Watergate and the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.
I realize the reason for the recent peaceful protests here and around the country is the issue, and not the National Anthem itself. But I think the racial healing this nation so desperately needs should be reflected in our national song and our respect for those protesting for the sentiments such an anthem projects.
That’s what I think now — and it’s also what I thought when I wrote the Monitor opinion piece more than 40 years ago. And I still wish things would change.