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Opinion | Why we must keep singing this song

Sheryl Lee Ralph sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the Super Bowl. via the NFL
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A week or so ago, this was the first verse of the most dangerous song in America:

Lift every 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.

Crazy, right? A song about the harmonies of liberty.

Still, some folks were losing their minds that the National Football League (NFL) had the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to allow award-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph to sing it prior to the Super Bowl. 

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.

What’s not to like? For some, apparently a lot.

Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert said the NFL was using the song to divide the nation. Newsmax host Benny Johnson even declared that it should be outlawed.

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?

Seems silly to get so worked up over a song written well over a century ago. How dangerous are lyrics about “weary feet” and fathers “sighing?” 

Their problem isn’t what the song says. It’s what the song is called.

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“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is also known as the Black National Anthem, written by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson in 1900. (For more details about this classic hymn, check out my NPR feature about it.

“How the hell is this even a thing?” Johnson asked on his Newsmax show according to the Media Matters website. “What a repugnant, degenerate thing to do, to split up a national anthem by race. That is antithetical, of course, to America. It should, quite frankly, be illegal. You shouldn’t be able to do that. Is there a white national anthem? I’m not sure anyone would be very happy with that being sung.”

Johnson’s lack of historical awareness is stunning. Let’s go to the last half of the third verse of The Star Spangled Banner:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Our nation’s official national anthem began as a poem written in 1814  by slaveowner and rabid anti-abolitionist Francis Scott Key. And that segment of the little-known third verse was a slavery tribute if there ever was one.   

So, is there a white national anthem? Yep, even if most of us don’t know its white supremacist part.

Antithetical to America? Have Johnson and the other conservative critics ever heard of slavery? Jim Crow? Lynching? Convict leasing? Redlining? 

Racial discrimination in the application of the G.I. Bill? Discrimination faced by black farmers trying to access USDA funds?

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Hiring discrimination? Bank loan discrimination? Mass incarceration? 

Antithetical to America? Racism was codified and perfected in America.

Johnson’s right about one thing. It is repugnant and degenerate to divide things by race to create privilege for one group. Which is why slavery and Jim Crow ultimately failed.

But Johnson’s protests suggest he doesn’t grasp the reality of history and its connection to the present – or future. Which is why we must keep singing this song. 

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,

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.

David Person is a media personality and consultant who has been working in the Huntsville market since 1986 as a talk show host, columnist, and director/producer. David co-hosts the podcast Alabama Politics This Week.

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