The National Football League recently announced that in the upcoming season the stirring hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be played prior to games, alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My first thought when I heard about it was “Cool. That’s a beautiful song.”
But apparently others have not been so keen about the announcement. Some have criticized the choice of the NFL, seemingly bothered that “Lift Every Voice,” often called the “Black National Anthem,” might somehow diminish the official national anthem.
With all due respect, I’d propose that the detractors have not paid much attention to the song itself, at least not in its entirety. (Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since, like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the entire lyrics are seldom performed.) When you read the full lyrics, you grasp the power of poetry that should unite and inspire, not engender argument. The soaring anthem endorses no current political movement, but expresses love of God and love of a nation it challenges to improve.
“Lift Every Voice” began with the absolutely fascinating James Weldon Johnson. Author, speaker, activist, attorney, patriot, diplomat — Johnson was a prominent voice in the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. But earlier than that, in 1900, he had written “Lift Every Voice” as a poem of aspiration. His brother, well-known composer John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music in 1905 to mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
To realize the full impact of the song, you have to consider the context in which it was written. Johnson was born in 1871, and so never experienced slavery firsthand. But he would have known many former enslaved people, and could have spoken eloquently about how emancipation and three constitutional amendments had marked crucial steps to freedom. But he could also rightly lament the force of “Jim Crow” segregation that marked and marred his entire life. Progress had been made, but promises remained unrealized, Johnson could attest. That was — and remains — the message of “Lift Every Voice.”
Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ’til earth and heaven ring // Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; // Let our rejoicing rise high as the list’ning skies // Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us // Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us // Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod // Bitter the chastening rod // Felt in the days when hope unborn had died // Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet // Come to the place for which our fathers died.
By 1919 James was a leader in the NAACP and the brothers’ song had been dubbed the “Negro National Anthem.” Manifestly religious in expression and imagery, it was (and is) included in many church hymnals.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears // Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way // Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light // Keep us forever in the path, we pray. // Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee // Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee…
I’m reminded that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is also a hymn of thanksgiving and a reminder of the true source of liberty, if you dig into the later verses that most people don’t know exist: “Blessed with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land // Praise the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. // …and this be our motto: in God is our trust.
“Lift Every Voice” further closes with a bold statement of patriotism: Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand // True to our God, True to our native land.
Johnson himself defined his masterpiece as … a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us // a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. The NFL’s chosen a fitting song we all should hear and embrace, a song of faith in the Creator and faith in an imperfect but promising nation. It doesn’t replace our national anthem (technically, only Congress can do that). Instead, it wonderfully, inspiringly supplements it. Hearing both side-by-side is a reminder that we live in one nation, under God; a great nation that is still very much a work in progress.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.