We Need a New National Anthem

As we celebrate the 244th anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, in the midst of demonstrations and protests against systemic racism and police brutality of African-Americans, it is time to consider replacing our national anthem with one more suitable to the values and priorities of the United States in 2020.

There are many important reasons to discard “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem right now. Not only is it nearly impossible to sing, but it was composed in 1814 by a slave-owning lawyer who prosecuted cases against abolitionists, and it only became our national anthem in 1931, when lynching of African-Americans was all too common and decades before the Civil Rights Movement.

Francis Scott Key, a wealthy lawyer from a plantation-owning family, was attempting to negotiate the release of an American prisoner on a British warship as a British squadron attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor on September 13-14, 1814. He owned a number of slaves and held racist views of African slaves.  In a July 1, 2016 article by Christopher Wilson in the Smithsonian Magazine, Key is reputed to have said that Africans in America were: “… a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

Key’s family’s wealth was largely due to slave-owning, and his support of slavery extended to his prosecutions of abolitionists, some for merely having anti-slavery pamphlets, as well as his recommendation to President Andrew Jackson that Jackson nominate Key’s brother-in-law Roger Taney to the Supreme Court.  Jackson, himself a slave owner and notorious now for his racist views, especially of the Native People whom he persecuted and mass-killed, had Taney appointed to the Supreme Court. It was Taney who wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which said that all people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not United States citizens and, therefore, had no right to sue for their freedom in federal court. In addition, he wrote that the Fifth Amendment protected slave owners’ rights because enslaved workers were their legal property.

As for Key’s poem/anthem, the third verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” contains these racist lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:/And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Not only do these lines mock slaves, but they are ironic because, while Key was composing these lines, it is possible that black slaves were trying to reach the British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the British Union Jack than they were under the American “Star-Spangled Banner.” In fact, abolitionists later ridiculed Key’s words during his lifetime by saying that America was truly the “Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed.”

So, today, we need a national anthem which is not only singable, but which is not written by a racist, anti-abolitionist slave owner as African-Americans still struggle for equality and justice.

Here is my suggestion: use the first verse/chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and a second verse which I humbly offer:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

Neither skin color, nor religion,
Nor ethnic background, wealth, nor gender,
Should  block equality, justice, or freedom,
‘Cause this land was made for you and me.

Ed Ciaccio is a writer on peace and social justice issues, a retired teacher, a conscientious objector since 1967, and author of Heartlines: Selected Personal Works 1966-2011 and Red Pills: Political Poems and Parodies 1968 - 2018. Read other articles by Ed.