The National Anthem: History and Meaning

Carry Hurley

Star spangled banner

It was 202 years ago when Francis Scott Key, an author, lawyer, and amateur poet, wrote the national anthem. Those words have been recited before ceremonies and sporting events all around our great nation. It is a song that the majority of students are learning as the public-school system does its part in raising patriotic young citizens. It is a song that is used to bring about pride and motivation to those who hear it, but the song and its history also brings tumultuous memories to many.

Though many believe the Star-Spangled Banner to have been a tradition straight from the time of the Revolutionary War, it was less than ninety years ago that Congress passed a bill to make it the official anthem of the United States. The bombastic music that accompanies the song is not even original; it was taken from an 18th century British song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

Many Americans have never heard the third verse of the national anthem as most performances of the tune end after the first verse. However, it is the third verse that gives pause to many who hear it. Some who hear the line “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” which, according to some, refers to the African American slaves who fought for the British side of the revolutionary war after being told that because of their efforts they would be made free.

As a result of the racially insensitive third verse as well as the overall oppression of black Americans in the United States, many African Americans have taken up the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as “the Black National Anthem.” The lyrics were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1905 his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music and the full song was performed for the first time by a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida.

James Weldon Johnson

A history of the Anthem can be found here.