San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing refusal to stand during the national anthem coincides with the 15th anniversary this fall of Madison’s own National Anthem controversy.

Of course, this month also marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that, too, factored into the Madison controversy.

It was an incendiary time of raw feelings and raging voices in the city, prompting thousands and thousands of angry emails from people outside of Madison and triggering an infamous article in the New Yorker magazine.

In hindsight, and perhaps surprisingly, it also passed fairly quickly.

It started with a Wisconsin state law passed in the summer of 2001 that required public school districts to offer either the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem each day at school.

At a meeting in early October of that year, the Madison School Board decided that Madison schools would comply with the new law by playing an instrumental-only version of National Anthem. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would not be allowed.

Board members later explained they were trying to be sensitive to students and families who objected to the “one nation under God” phrase in the pledge, and the militaristic “rockets” and “bombs” in the anthem.

Unwittingly, the board had set off a bomb of its own.

As word spread about the board’s action, coming as it did just four weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a torrent of criticism ensued. Board members were called unpatriotic and much worse. National talk show hosts ridiculed the city. Some 20,000 emails and phone calls flooded the school district.

A week later, the board met again, at a hastily arranged special session at Memorial High School. An overflow crowd—1,200 people for the 800-seat auditorium—showed up. More than 160 people spoke. The meeting lasted eight hours.

At the end, the board voted 6-1 to allow the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem in Madison schools.

The dissenting vote was from board member Bill Keys, who bemoaned the patriotic furor in the wake of the attacks that he said made a nuanced discussion of a serious issue impossible.

Conservatives in Madison vowed to try to recall Keys.

Meanwhile, a former New Yorker magazine journalist, Dwight Allen, recently transplanted to Madison, witnessed the drama unfold and alerted a friend, the New Yorker writer Mark Singer , who immediately grasped the story possibilities and was soon on a plane to Madison.

Singer spent many days here and spoke to numerous people, diligently reporting both sides of the contentious pledge/anthem debate.

I chatted with Singer while he was preparing his piece and he was almost gushing about Madison.

“I have never been in a place where people were more willing to talk,” Singer told me. “It’s a fascinating story. You’re lucky. Madison is a great place.”

But then the article was published in November. While much of it was a straightforward narrative of what happened, the last paragraph struck a tone at odds with the rest of the piece, as Singer sharply criticized Madison for having had the pledge/anthem debate at all:

“Underlying the rhetoric about what a valuable civics lesson Madison has witnessed,” Singer wrote, “there’s a less noble quality, a failure to acknowledge the self-indulgence implicit in all the carping.”

It was easy for Madison to debate abstractions, he concluded, because the city was hundreds of miles away from the sites of the 9/11 attacks.

Many readers felt Singer had missed the whole point. A letter published in the New Yorker said as much: “At a time when political discourse is dominated by almost menacing calls for ideological unity, it is hard to imagine an issue more timely.”
It should be noted that when Singer included his Madison story in a book a few years later, he amended the last paragraph, at the same time saying the piece had brought more mail than any other he’d written.

The last time I saw Bill Keys was that November, 15 years ago. We’d both shown up at Borders bookstore on University Avenue to get the first copies of Singer’s New Yorker story. I imagine Bill liked everything but that last paragraph. The effort to recall him went nowhere.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.