By Hank Boerner
Our Flag – the Pledge – Our Beloved Star Spangled Banner…
Symbol of Civil Rights Protest — or Devotion to Country?
The dust up over the stand/don’t stand situation in the National Football League — when the U.S. National Anthem is played — is disturbing to a lot of people.
Is this about “protesting” the life & death friction between a handful of police officers and African-Americas? About First Amendment-guaranteed free speech rights being exercised? About using a very visible public arena — football is “America’s game” after all — to bring attention to serious social / societal issues? All of these? And more — what about this being a case of disrespecting the treasured American flag (the stars and stripes, which the national anthem honors)?
Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…is our flag still there….
And for you, dear reader — how many times have you said these words – probably thousands and thousands, depending on your age: I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
This Pledge – of Allegiance – is to the Flag, symbol of our nation, beloved by our American People.
The flag’s symbolism is powerful.
When I think of the American flag, I try to imagine the conditions under which Francis Scott Key penned his poem (in 1814). He was holed up in Baltimore harbor as British war ships pounded Fort McHenry (his poem was “Defense of Ft McHenry”). In 1931 this poem was set to music by Stafford Smith and was adopted as our National Anthem. Most of us have probably never read the full four paragraphs (the three beyond the first, which we regularly sing along with).
The British cannons raked the fort. In the morning dawn, the tattered flag is visible. (The original was restored and is on display in the nation’s capital.) Writes Key:
“Tis the Start-spangled Banner: O, long may it wave,
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave…”
For me, another battle, another flag, is closer in time (at least for me) in understanding the conditions under which this symbol of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave was seared into memory. For people who were there, fighting and dying, and for those of us who have since looked on at their sacrifice.
Consider: February, 1945 – on the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima: members of the United States Marine Corps are locked in a life & death battle with the entrenched forces of the military of the Empire of Japan. On the tallest peak, on this small, extinct volcano, a group of Marines raise a small flag on top of Mount Suribachi. Cheers go up. The American fighting men are encouraged by the sight.
Later, another group of Leathernecks goes up and photograph Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press takes the photo that has been reproduced millions of times ever since. You can see that act memorialized in a notable structure – erected by private donations – overlooking the City of Washington, D.C.
Photo: United States Marine Corps, Quantico, VA
This brave act, carrying up and raising a larger more visible 48-star American flag taken from an amphibious LST landing craft back on the beach, was in reality the act of “…six ordinary Americans, half of the them doomed to become casualties on Iwo…”
Consider the sacrifice under the banner raised atop the hill on Iwo Jima: “Thousands of foxholes, draped with ponchos and shelter halves, pocked the island…chilled by sudden rain, harassed by heavy surf, the support and service units doggedly performed their tasks under the constant threat of artillery. On Iwo, every place seemed like the front…”
“…the exhausted Marine divisions slowly eliminated resistance…on March 16 the island was declared secure…” “ Japanese Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s 21,000 man garrison died in place as ordered, many in caves providing protection against American forces. In the process, the Japanese inflicted 26,000 Marine casualties, 2,798 [U.S. Navy personnel] and 37 [U.S. Army].
Marines stand at attention when composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa’s Marine Corps Hymn is played, and of course when the ode to the Star Spangled Banner is sung – our National Anthem. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardie’s – all are at attention and saluting when the grand song of our Republic is played.
My Iwo Jima source: Semper Fidelis, The History of the United States Marine Corps,” by Allan R. Millett, published 1991 by The Free Press/McMillan, Inc.
The National Anthem and American Sports
In civilian life, especially in professional sports, the singing of the national anthem and display of the flag are very much integrated in the many symbolisms and activities of the National Football League, The American and National Leagues of baseball, and most other sports activities – professional and amateur.
Who will ever forget the powerful performance of the late Whitney Houston signing the national anthem in January 1991 in Tampa at the start of the Super Bowl XXV? Link here to watch if you have not seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lCmBvYMRs
And so these days there are powerful emotions attached to the actions of San Francisco 49ers (NFL) Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down when the national anthem is sung. His first act of protest was at the start of the August 26 pre-season match with the Green Bay Packers; he repeated the gesture shortly after in the pre-season game with the 49ers and San Diego Chargers. Note that was the Chargers’ annual “Salute to the Military” celebration in San Diego, a big US Navy and US Marine Corps base.
Explaining why he “sat” during the song, he explained: “I am not going to stand up [to show pride in a flag] for a country that suppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. there are bodies in the streets and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. ” (Source: NFL Media.)
The NFL also said: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” Just to be clear about that.
In response the Santa Clara Police Union said it would boycott 49ers games. It might not provide protection at the team’s games.
Reflecting the division on the issue, a #VetsForKaepernick Twitter dialogue.
The team was circumspect in its response (remember, this is San Francisco, by political standards a liberal, even immigrant-protective “sanctuary” city): “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on our great liberties we are afforded as citizens/ Om respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Speaking from China and the meeting of the G20 nations, President Barack Obama weighed in with the comments: “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that need to be talked about.” President Obama said when it comes to the flag, and the national anthem, and the meaning that that holds for our men and women in uniform and for those who fought for us, that is a tough thing for them to get past [and to hear] what his deeper concerns are…” (Source: Politico web site.)
I call this column “Stay Tuned” — and so we will, to his controversy, which has inflamed so many people’s views about our flag, our anthem, our display of love of country. There is certainly more to come in all of this during the now=accelerating presidential campaigning. What are your thoughts on all of this?