Black na­tional an­them could be­come the na­tional hymn

Bill would el­e­vate “Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing’

- Deb­o­rah Barfield Berry U.S. News · Politics · Washington · United States of America · Congress of the United States · Jim Clyburn · South Carolina · Donald Trump · Capitol Records · Howard · Johnson · Abraham Lincoln · Alabama · Arizona State University · Jim Crow · NFL · Beyoncé · Barack Obama · Williams · United States Senate · Liberty · Weldon · National Association for the Advancement of Colored People · Rosamond · Lincoln, AL · Robinson · Alabama State University · Avenged Sevenfold · Sing · True

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. James Cly­burn, D-S.C., wants a song about faith and re­silience long revered in the Black com­mu­nity to be­come the na­tional hymn and help unite the coun­try af­ter cen­turies of ra­cial tur­moil.

Cly­burn, the House ma­jor­ity whip, plans to in­tro­duce a mea­sure as early as this week that would make “Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing,” known as the Black na­tional an­them, the na­tional hymn and give it a spe­cial place along­side the coun­try’s an­them, “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.”

“To make it a na­tional hymn, I think, would be an act of bring­ing the coun­try to­gether. It would say to peo­ple, ‘You aren’t singing a sep­a­rate na­tional an­them, you are singing the coun­try’s na­tional hymn,’” said Cly­burn, the high­est-rank­ing Black Amer­i­can in Congress. “The ges­ture it­self would be an act of heal­ing. Every­body can iden­tify with that song.”

The song is an im­por­tant part of African Amer­i­can cul­ture and his­tory. For decades, it has been sung in Black com­mu­ni­ties at school plays, awards pro­grams, grad­u­a­tions and church ser­vices. Cly­burn said it’s time for it to be sung in other com­mu­ni­ties.

The push comes at a time of so­cial un­rest, protests over po­lice killings of un­armed Black men and women and the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of the coro­n­avirus on com­mu­ni­ties of color. It also comes on the heels of a deadly at­tack by sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on the U.S. Capi­tol. Five peo­ple, in­clud­ing a Capi­tol Po­lice of­fi­cer, died.

Some ex­perts and his­to­ri­ans said the leg­isla­tive push would do lit­tle to ad­dress sys­temic prob­lems plagu­ing com­mu­ni­ties of color.

“It’s sym­bol­i­cally no­table for Black peo­ple, but in the larger scheme of things, this isn’t go­ing to put food on peo­ple’s ta­ble, it’s not go­ing to in­crease peo­ple’s pay,” said Michael Faun­troy, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Howard Uni­ver­sity in Washington.

Faun­troy said he wor­ries some peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly African Amer­i­cans, can over­state the im­por­tance of sym­bolic vic­to­ries and sub­sti­tute them for more struc­tural changes.

Cly­burn said the ef­fort is far more than sym­bolic, say­ing he aims to add weight to it as a na­tional hymn. “It’s a very pop­u­lar song that is steeped in the his­tory of the coun­try,” he said.

Song comes out of his­tory of pain

“Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing” was writ­ten as a poem by James Wel­don John­son, an NAACP leader, in 1899 and put to mu­sic by his brother, John Rosa­mond John­son. It was first per­formed in pub­lic by school chil­dren in 1900 at a birth­day cel­e­bra­tion hon­or­ing Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln, ac­cord­ing to the NAACP.

The NAACP adopted it as its of­fi­cial song.

Cly­burn said, “I’ve al­ways been skit­tish” about its early la­bel as the “Ne­gro na­tional an­them.”

“We should have one na­tional an­them, ir­re­spec­tive of whether you’re Black or white,” he said. “So to give due honor and re­spect to the song, we ought to name it the na­tional hymn.”

The song was writ­ten dur­ing an­other tu­mul­tuous pe­riod for African Amer­i­cans, said Howard Robin­son, an ar­chiv­ist at Alabama State Uni­ver­sity and a mem­ber of the steer­ing com­mit­tee for ASU’s Na­tional Cen­ter for the Study of Civil Rights and African-Amer­i­can Cul­ture.

Black Amer­i­cans were be­ing lynched. Jim Crow laws were en­trenched.

“The song does not ro­man­ti­cize Amer­ica’s past,” Robin­son said, re­fer­ring to lyrics such as “full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”

Robin­son also noted op­ti­mism in lyrics such as “the hope that the present has brought us.”

“This song speaks to the peo­ple who suf­fered through the chas­ten­ing rod,” he said. “I think that the song is a dif­fer­ent look at Amer­ica, is a more crit­i­cal look at Amer­ica while at the same time be­ing op­ti­mistic about our present and fu­ture.”

Black Lives Mat­ter protests over ra­cial in­jus­tice and in­equities res­onated last sum­mer in Amer­ica and around the world. The song was sung at some of those protests.

The NFL an­nounced last year that it would play “Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” be­fore Week 1 games.

Over the years, many celebri­ties, in­clud­ing Bey­oncé, have per­formed the song. The Rev. Joseph Low­ery, a civil rights icon, quoted some of its verses when he de­liv­ered the bene­dic­tion at Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2009.

Adopt­ing it as a na­tional hymn is an im­por­tant step to­ward nor­mal­iz­ing and cod­i­fy­ing it as a cen­tral part of our his­tory, said Nolan Wil­liams, a com­poser, pro­ducer and cul­tural cu­ra­tor.

“It re­ally should be­come a piece that we as a na­tion rec­og­nize and honor for what it means, not just for African Amer­i­cans, but for Amer­i­cans,” Wil­liams said. “The plight of African Amer­i­cans is a cen­tral part of Amer­i­can his­tory.”

Cly­burn had to build up nerve

Cly­burn said he con­sid­ered the mea­sure for decades. Last month, he asked his staff to craft leg­is­la­tion. The four­page bill, ob­tained by USA TO­DAY, cites the song’s his­tory and calls it a “beloved hymn.”

“Ever since I’ve been in the Congress, I’ve been try­ing to come up with enough nerve to in­tro­duce a na­tional hymn,” Cly­burn said. “I hope I can sur­vive and see it passed.”

Since 1973, six bills have been in­tro­duced in Congress to des­ig­nate songs, in­clud­ing “God Bless Amer­ica,” and “Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful” as a na­tional hymn, but none of them passed into law, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Se­nate His­tor­i­cal Of­fice.

“The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” was of­fi­cially adopted as the na­tional an­them in 1931. An­thems are of­ten pa­tri­otic songs. Hymns are more re­li­gious songs of praise.

Cly­burn said his mea­sure is not in­tended to take away from the na­tional an­them, which he said he sings and still re­mem­bers the good feel­ing of play­ing it long ago on his clar­inet.

Cly­burn said he hopes for “ex­ten­sive” bi­par­ti­san sup­port in both cham­bers.

Robin­son said he would be sur­prised if the ef­fort was well re­ceived by law­mak­ers and a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans. “For the whole na­tion to em­brace this (song) as a way to un­der­stand our col­lec­tive his­tory … that’s a tall order,” he said.

Still, Robin­son said, the na­tion is in a pe­riod of re­flec­tion, which might gen­er­ate more sup­port.

Some peo­ple are “more re­cep­tive to look­ing at the past, not from rose-colored glasses, but through a prism that sees el­e­ments of the past as both painful and ex­ploitive, but also (one that) pro­duced he­roes and re­siliency,” he said.

If that hap­pens, all Amer­i­cans could soon sing along to the lyrics:

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 sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been wa­tered,

We have come, tread­ing our path through the blood of the slaugh­tered, Out from the gloomy past,

’Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has 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; Shad­owed be­neath Thy hand, May we for­ever stand,

True to our God,

True to our na­tive land.

 ?? DEB­O­RAH BARFIELD BERRY/USA TO­DAY ?? Rep. James Cly­burn, D-S.C., plans to in­tro­duce a bill that would make “Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing” the na­tional hymn.
DEB­O­RAH BARFIELD BERRY/USA TO­DAY Rep. James Cly­burn, D-S.C., plans to in­tro­duce a bill that would make “Lift Ev­ery Voice and Sing” the na­tional hymn.

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