Popularly known as the Black National Anthem, Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing is a song that presents patriotism in its purest sense: a steadfast love of God, country, and liberty; exhibiting strength, endurance and hope, against the greatest odds. Originally written by noted James Weldon Johnson in 1900 as a poem, it was set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, an accomplished musician. The song was taught to, and first sung by 500 Black Stanton School students in Jacksonville, Florida, in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday, on February 12, 1900.
The Star Spangled Banner, written in 1814, by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, was also at first, a poem. Initially entitled Defence Of Fort M’Henry, Key was inspired when, during a bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, in the War of 1812, he witnessed the large U.S. flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, known as the Star Spangled Banner, flying victoriously and triumphantly in the air. This battle song was officially adopted as the national anthem of the United States in 1931. Recently, however, there has been much discussion about whether these lines in the little known third stanza of the national anthem are racist:
“No refuge could save, the hireling and slave’, from the terror of flight, and the gloom of the grave.”
Briefly translated, it is clear that Key took delight in seeing escaped slaves who had joined British forces getting killed, as they tried to take Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.
There’s always a song to set things off, to get the movement moving, or to start the playing of the game. During the Civil Rights Movement, the song was We Shall Overcome, a gospel song-turned-protest song, written in 1900 by Charles Albert Tinley, a Black Methodist minister and composer. Black and White marchers locked arms and sang this song together. That show of unity was profound and affirmed there was a shared humanity. There were a number of songs and chants that made significant impressions dealing with racial and social injustice. Singer, musician and activist, Nina Simone wrote and sang Mississippi Goddam, a 1964 song that protested the atrocities and inequities of Black life in America, particularly in the south. The song was banned, and marked a point where her professional career suffered dramatically. After the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power slogan emerged, as did the James Brown classic, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. Another song that inspired millions of Black youths was To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, used anthem-like at many graduations throughout Black America.
The National Anthem is performed at every professional sporting event in the United States. However, during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico, gold medalist Tommie Smith, and bronze medalist John Carlos, both, African-Americans, raised black-gloved fists in protest, during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. Tommie Smith later pointed out in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, that it was as much a human rights salute as a salute to Black Power.
In 2016, Colin Kaeperneck, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers decided to stage a protest during the opening ceremony. While the flag was being pledged, and the anthem was being sung, Kaeperneck “took a knee”. He was trying to bring attention to police brutality. Many people felt he was disrespecting the flag and being unpatriotic. His protests were hijacked by the president and owners of the National Football League (NFL). Kaeperneck was labeled a problem and unceremoniously fired. And then, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was in police custody, when, as per videos, police officer Derek Chauvin was shown holding Mr. Floyd down with a knee on his neck, for approximately 8 minutes. This prevented Mr. Floyd from breathing, and eventually killed him. The incident was seen on social media by millions of people, leading to worldwide support of protesters locking arms and taking a knee in protest of the wrongful death of George Floyd. This was followed by an avalanche of players and coaches taking a knee at the opening of sporting events, in remembrance of George Floyd.
The NFL owners decided that if the ceremony was going to be protested, the protestors should stay in the locker room until the opening ceremonies were over. With the cries of protestors getting increasingly louder, the NFL owners took it one step further. They added to the ceremony, the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing. The National Football League is seventy-five percent Black. Obviously, owners felt the inclusion of the National Black Anthem would appease Black players. The bottom line is that football team owners wanted to keep making millions, which meant keeping their players satisfied. It just so happened that some of the white players were singing the Black anthem along with the African-American players.
This past September, in support of Black Lives Matter, the world-renowned Howard University Choir was tapped to sing Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing before the opening game of the NFL season, for the Washington Football Team. It should be noted that Howard University, an Historically Black College and University (BHCU), has traditionally opened its sporting games and other major events with the National Black Anthem. As well, mega performer, Alicia Keys‘ outstanding rendition of the Black anthem during the Texans/Chiefs NFL kick-off comes highly recommended — vocally and visually.
The protestors of police brutality and social injustice have been Black and White. Everyone is talking about a change. Recently, there has been a call for re-visiting our country’s national anthem. Should it be a song that idealizes war and death? Or should it be one that celebrates life, and a shared humanity? Everyone is simply sick and tired of racial injustices that Blacks, and other marginalized people of color have had to live with for so long. Everyone is talking about a change. The right song might spark a change for the better. If we can sing together, perhaps we’ll learn how to live together–united, equally and safely, with justice for all. And on that note, let’s Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing!