By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on October 21, 2020
Most Americans have never heard of the “Negro National Anthem” that was sung in every segregated black school across the U.S. each morning during the Jim Crow era. The song is “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. I sang it every morning in class until I graduated from high school in May 1966.
When court-ordered desegregation occurred across the nation in the late 1960s, most black public schools were closed. White administrators who ran the nation’s school systems forbade black students from singing the song at their newly desegregated schools. Like so many positive aspects of black culture, the “Negro National Anthem” became a casualty of the desegregation process. The same was true for academic awards and sports trophies earned by the closed black high schools. The value of this memorabilia was completely disregarded by white America, particularly in the Deep South.
Here are the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”:
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till 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 till 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
This song was inspirational and it helped an entire race of “despised” African Americans endure: (a) the suffocating oppression and sweltering heat of Jim Crow segregation laws in the Deep South, (b) the Ku Klux Klan lynchings, beatings, cross burnings, house and church bombings, and (c) the entrenched systemic racial discrimination against blacks in every aspect of society. This song encouraged us to lift our voices and sing until freedom rang out across America. It is as sacred to African Americans as the “Star Spangled Banner” is to white America.
At the beginning of sports events, we sang the “Star Spangled Banner” followed by the “Negro National Anthem”. Everybody stood for both songs.
The Relevance of the “Negro National Anthem” Today
Fast-forward to today. The majority of players in the NBA and NFL are African Americans. In the era of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Breonna Taylor, black professional sports players are looking for a positive way to support the growing call for racial justice in America. Many of them have chosen to remain in their locker rooms, kneel or remain seated during the singing of the National Anthem. To me, this form of protest is divisive and disrespectful, especially for Americans whose athleticism affords them coveted membership in the top one percent of the nation’s income earners.
Many of these professional athletes have pressured their leagues to contribute financially to an activist group called Black Lives Matter. I have no problem with Black Lives Matter sponsoring peaceful protests around the nation as a means of calling the nation’s attention to social justice issues.
I realize that most white Americans dislike Black Lives Matter. Likewise, 75% of whites in America disliked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Fox TV talk show host, Laura Ingraham summed up white America’s attitude towards black athletes’ support for social justice protest when she said, “Shut up and dribble”. Ingraham was expressing the sincere view of millions of white Americans who simply want to be entertained by black athletes.
I think black professional athletes in the NBA and NFL should insist that the “Negro National Anthem” be sung immediately after the “Star Spangled Banner”. These two sports organizations would be paying respect to both iconic cultural symbols. This approach is done all the time when two different nations are playing a game against each other. This approach would also educate white America on a positive aspect of black culture and it would give black America some measure of the respect it deserves.
Right now, white America knows almost nothing about black history, culture and our positive contributions to American society. As the ruling class in America for 400 years, white Americans never had a need to know this information. What whites know today about blacks is limited to the world of sports statistics and rap music. We are viewed as modern-day minstrels who are paid to entertain and/or serve white America. This is why Laura Ingraham boldly said, “Shut up and dribble” to the loud applause of white Americans.
Black Lives Matter
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter needs to focus on voter registration and running its best and brightest members for city council in urban areas across America. Based on my personal knowledge and experience, a single educated, energetic and dedicated African American councilmember can bring deadly police shootings in his/her city to a complete halt within a single 4-year term. All he/she has to do is use the power of his/her office to conduct a “committee of one” investigation into a couple of police shootings and publish his/her detailed written findings in the minutes of a council meeting.
Nobody can “whitewash” a police shooting when this is done. A knowledgeable and dedicated city councilmember has the power to obtain and review every city document in existence, including all police department files on every officer. This is hard work, but it saves lives. It also serves as a “check and balance” against police misconduct and police coverups.
Whether an African American is a professional athlete or supporter of Black Lives Matter, there are effective platforms and means available to change negative conditions in society. We should start with the rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” immediately after singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of sports events and we should continue by registering black and brown Americans to vote. Finally, Black Lives Matter should encourage its best and brightest members to run for city council and county commission seats.
If there are white Americans who oppose the singing of the “Negro National Anthem” we need to know who they are. Likewise, if there are Black Lives Matter activists who do not want to leave the streets to join governing bodies in cities and counties across America, we need to know them, as well.
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