As protests over the national anthem spread across the country, some three million kids nationwide stood in unison Friday and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to honor the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
The event, called the National Anthem Sing-A-Long, involved kids from Guam to Hawaii to New Jersey, who all stood and sang the song at 1 p.m. Eastern time.
Emmy award-winning TV reporter Mia Toschi came up with the idea for the event four years ago, after spending time in and out of classrooms as an education reporter and volunteer at the 9/11 Tribute Center. Toschi noticed that teachers still struggled with educating students about the event. She thought about how the full story of Sept. 11 wasn’t only about the tragic day the planes hit the Twin Towers, but also the next day, when Americans unified. The national anthem, to Toschi, symbolizes this unity.
“September 11 has been problematic even though it’s in the history books. It’s in the beginning of the school year and people still in this area struggle with what to do in the classroom,” said Toschi. “Somehow we need to teach kids that, as bad as the lessons are of what happened, the day after on September 12, when the world came together ― that’s something the kids don’t understand. I thought about how would you unite the country in one single event.”
Toschi sees the national anthem as a song that has been “uniting us for decades.” But in recent weeks, the song has been under heightened scrutiny, after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the song during a preseason football game in protest. Players from the Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos joined the protest in subsequent weeks.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in late August. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
But despite the controversy, Toschi says her event hasn’t received negative reactions this year. The nationwide initiative is coordinated by the American Public Education Foundation, where Toschi is national director.
She said that while Kaepernick is free to express his opinion, the anthem is “still our history and it was written in a different time.”
“If he wanted to take the debate to Congress and do it in a more thoughtful way and say, ‘Hey listen, I think this should change,’ and present the views, that’s one thing,” said Toschi, who said her views are not representative of the American Public Education Foundation. “But just to take a knee is disrespectful to veterans and it’s disrespectful to people that the national anthem means something to.”
Toschi attended the sing-a-long at Ramsey High School in New Jersey on Friday. Stephen Baker, a former wide receiver for the New York Giants, accompanied her. He spoke to students during an assembly about his career and about overcoming adversity, “just like we did with 9/11,” he said.
“Arguably the best part of any football game is the national anthem,” said Baker. “Of course everyone has the right to express their freedoms; that’s what this country is all about. I, for one, based on my life experiences ... I’m standing.”