Robert F. Jakubowicz: Kaepernick triggers anthem reflections

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PITTSFIELD — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made headlines involving the "The Star Spangled Banner." He took a symbolic stand regarding what he called this country's oppression against "black people and people of color" by sitting during the playing of the national anthem before a pre-season game. He says he will go to one knee during the anthem at Monday night's regular season opener.

I encourage him to now use his sport's fame to work with others in coming up with meaningful solutions rather than more symbolic gestures to deal with the persisting race problem in the nation.

Meanwhile, Wednesday, Sept. 14 will mark the 202nd anniversary of the penning of the words of our country's national anthem. There are some little known stories about the anthem that are worth retelling.

No refuge for slaves

There is an interesting article in the September 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine written by Andrew Cockburn which has been cited by some as justification for Kaepernick's use of the national anthem to make his point because of some of the words in it that are seldom, if ever, sung. Today only the familiar first verse is usually sung.

One of the omitted verses, the third, contains these lines:

"No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave."

According to Cockburn, his relative, Admiral Sir George Cockburn had fought his way into Washington D.C. in 1814, leading a British army which included slaves he freed, trained and armed. The admiral, who sacked the capital, was under orders to: "Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the black population than with a view to any other advantage. The great point to be attained is the cordial support of the black population. With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne."

Admiral Cockburn continued to encourage fugitive slaves to join his forces. After the war ended. he refused the American request to return "all American property" which included 6,000 former slaves.

It is Frances Scott Key's hope in the third verse of the anthem that these fugitive slaves do not find a refuge to save them from the "terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave" in this war. Cockburn thought that his ancestor the admiral, should receive more recognition in this country as one of the "great emancipators."

Then there is the story of how the "Star Spangled Banner" became an integral part of America's sporting events. During the 200th anniversary of Key's composing the lyrics for the national anthem, several sportswriters told the following story.

America and the world was a gloomy place in 1918 with the heavy casualties piling up in World War I and there was the bombing of Chicago Federal Building with four dead and 30 wounded. That was also the year the Boston Red Sox were playing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

Despite the Chicago ballpark being festooned with red, white and blue and Babe Ruth pitching an exciting 1-0 first game against the Cubs, the crowd was was nearly silent. According to the Chicago Tribune, it was perhaps the "quietest game on record" for a world championship series.

There was one exception. During the 7th inning stretch, a military band on hand decided to play the "The Star Spangled Banner," which had been played on holidays at games since the mid-1880s. However, this time, the Sox third baseman, Fred Thomas, who was on furlough from the Navy to play in the Series, snapped to attention, faced and saluted the flag while the band played on.

Having served in the Army a long time ago, I can attest to such a military-induced reaction which I still feel today when the anthem is played. When the fans noticed what Thomas was doing they began to do the same. And the rest is history. "The Star Spangled Banner" became a popular pre-game tradition not only at baseball games but at all the other sport venues.

ESPN The Magazine writers Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex summed up the story this way: "Thanks to a brass band, some fickle fans and a player who snapped to attention on a somber day in September, the old battle ballad was the national pastime's anthem more than a decade before it was the nation's."

A sacred symbol

There was no official national anthem between 1918 and 1931 when "The Star Spangled Banner" was officially adopted as such by Congress. So what was played during occasions that called for the playing of a national anthem? According to various sources, I found that apparently such songs as "Hail Columbia" was used quite often while others included "The Star Spangled Banner," and to a lesser degree "Yankee Doodle," and "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

There have been calls to change the national anthem because it is difficult to sing, based on war and has some controversial verses that are never sung, but over the years it has become a sacred national symbol that is destined to endure.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular contributor to The Eagle.


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