Every time that old barroom tune – which didn’t become this nation’s official patriotic song until 117 years after it was written – is performed, I stand up. I get up even though the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner contains a hated-filled rant against the runaway slaves who won their freedom by fighting for the British during the War of 1812.
Some of those slaves helped defeat an American force in 1814 that was defending Washington, D.C. When the American troops broke ranks and ran from the battlefield, they cleared the way for the British to burn the White House and Congress. Francis Scott Key was among those who fled that fight only days before he wrote the Star Spangled Banner, journalist Jefferson Morley reveals in his book, Snow Storm in August.
I rise for every performance of that song by Key, a Maryland lawyer and slave owner who once branded blacks “a distinct and inferior race of people.” I stand even though I know of the awful mistreatment that far too many of the black patriots who joined this nation’s military have been forced to suffer.
From President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 decision to dishonorably discharge all 167 members of a black infantry regiment based on a trumped up charge of misconduct that wasn’t reversed until 1970, to the 1941 lynching of a black soldier on the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., that was never solved, it’s understandable that some blacks might find bogus the national anthem’s patriotic appeal. Add to this the denial of “equal protection of the law” to dozens of unarmed black men that were killed by police in the first decades of this century, and whose murders were affirmed by judges and juries, and it doesn’t surprise me that some protestors refuse to stand for Key’s song.
My decision to stand for the Star Spangled Banner is not rooted in a rejection of those blacks who take a knee. I do so in partnership with them.
In October 1964, I volunteered for military service as the Vietnam War was heating up. Three months earlier, Donald Trump got the first of five draft deferments that he sought to duck military service when the nation he now leads was at war.
Now, as president and the nation’s self-anointed “patriot-in-chief,” Trump bristles at the sight of professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest the mistreatment of blacks by the cops who give police in this country a bad name. But he took a knee for years during the Vietnam war.
When I stand for the national anthem, I do so as a black man whose claim to patriotism is validated by a national defense service medal, a Vietnam service medal with a Bronze Star and a Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal that I earned.
I stand as the grandson of an impoverished black man who served 2 ½ years in the U.S. Navy prior to World War I and whose dirt-poor son – my father – left a Baltimore ghetto to serve this country during World War II. In 1944, my dad volunteered to serve with the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12 Armored Division Infantry, a white combat unit that had taken heavy casualties and was badly in need of replacements. He was among the first blacks to serve in an integrated combat unit, years before President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces.
Like my grandfather, my father returned from his wartime service to a lifetime of menial jobs and low pay. I stand for the national anthem to honor their military service. But most of all I stand to contrast my family’s service to this country against that of Donald Trump, whose claim to patriotism can be found only in his tough-talking tweets – not his real life actions.
I stand in support of the right of Colin Kaepernick, the blacklisted NFL quarterback, and other black athletes to non-violently protest violence against blacks.
DeWayne Wickham is the founding dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication. For 30 years he was a columnist for USA TODAY and Gannett.