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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Why I Stand For The National Anthem

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on July 26, 2018; Updated on November 13, 2018

When I attended K-12 schools in racially segregated Memphis, Tennessee and Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950s and 60s, we started each school day singing two national anthems. All Americans know the traditional National Anthem – “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Very few Americans outside of the Africa-American community have ever heard of the Negro National Anthem – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which we sang immediately after “The Star-Spangle Banner”.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first written as a poem. It was performed for the first time by 500 school children in celebration of President Lincoln's Birthday on February 12, 1900 at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. The school’s principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the poem to introduce its honored guest, Booker T. Washington.

In 1905, Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music. In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was one of the most inspiring songs in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing appear below:

“Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening 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, Till 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.”

I still revere this song. It brought me through the darkest and most difficult days of my childhood experiences with the vicious racism in Montgomery that was relieved only when I left Alabama to attend college from 1966-70 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

Today, American school children and adults across the nation rise, salute the flag, and sing one National Anthem -- “The Star-Spangle Banner”. This is the way it should be.

We are no longer two Americas -- one white and one black. We are now one America -- with liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. We are not perfect, but we represent the best the world has to offer in terms of respect for humanity and our civil liberties.

During the Civil Rights Movement, tens of millions of ordinary Americans of interracial goodwill from all walks of life forced our politicians in Washington to enact the national legislation we needed to unite America. These Americans led the politicians who liberated me, along with millions of blacks who were similarly situated, from the suffocating grip of entrenched racial segregation and the sweltering heat of bigotry and oppression in the Deep South.

I stand for the National Anthem because I owe this measure of honor and respect to the tens of millions of Americans who stood up for me so that I could: (a) drink from any public water fountain that worked; (b) use any public toilet that was available; (c) eat at any public lunch counter that served food I could afford to buy; (d) work as the first black cashier for the Delchamps grocery store chain in Alabama; (e) attend the college of my choice; (f) desegregate The University of Alabama’s Law School; (g) take and pass the bar exam without fear of racially motivated sabotage in the scoring of the exam results; (h) practice law throughout Alabama and in the District of Columbia in front of judges and juries of all races; (i) apply for and receive the first bank charter issued to an African-American owner by the Alabama Banking Department; (j) own and manage international energy services companies; and (k) participate fully and freely in the political process across America. I also owe this measure of honor and respect to our men and women in uniform who protect these freedoms from our domestic and foreign enemies.

I do not focus on those who subjected me to horrendous acts of subjugation and racial discrimination solely because I am black, for the forces that oppose our freedoms and dignity will always be among us. Even today, these forces work everyday to undermine the progress we have made as a nation to ensure that equal opportunity, educational excellence, and equal justice are available to all Americans.

Yet, I fully understand that these regressive forces do not represent the vast majority of decent Americans, nor do their abusive acts offset the staggering reservoir of interracial goodwill that enabled me to pursue my childhood dreams.

I will always stand for and sing the National Anthem. It is my honor and duty to do so. As a circumstance of birth, I am one of the 330 million men, women, and children who stand atop the world’s 7.5 billion inhabitants in terms of the overall quality of life on our planet solely because I am an American. We live and work in the greatest nation the world has ever known. All of us are blessed in this regard, whether we acknowledge it, or not.

America has given me a gratifying opportunity to engage in nation-building at home and abroad in 47 countries. Standing for the National Anthem is my way of saying “thank you” to every American who made this incredible journey possible.

To my friends who play football in the National Football League, I simply say this: One day I will own one of these teams. I work long and hard everyday to achieve this personal goal. When I acquire my NFL team, you WILL stand for the National Anthem and you will do so proudly, or you will NOT play for me. Above all, you will NOT dishonor the memory of the tens of millions of Americans of interracial goodwill who sacrificed their time, energy, and personal safety so that we could pursue and live the American dream.

PHOTO: James Weldon Johnson wrote"Lift Every Voice and Sing". It has been the "Negro National Anthem" since 1900.

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Aug 09, 2018

Thank you so much for this. I am always inspired by what you write and find myself in awe of your life path. I get choked up when I hear the anthem, as much now as during my years of military service. I know there are inequalities in our country and atrocities which happen every day. But we are one nation and I agree that it is important to behave as one nation while at the same time speaking truth to power.

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