To help heal racial wounds, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn came up with a proposal to make it so “everybody can identify with” the national hymn.
On Jan. 13, Clyburn filed a bill to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem, America’s hymn and give it a special place alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner,” according to USA Today.
He told USA Today that the gesture itself “would be an act of healing.”
“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, as reported by USA Today.
The proposal comes up at a difficult time: the protests over the police killing unarmed Black men and women, and COVID-19’s devastating impact on communities of color.
This song is important because for decades, it has been sung in Black communities at school plays, awards programs, graduations and church services, according to USA Today. Now Clyburn says “it’s time for it to be sung in other communities.”
However, some disagree with the proposal.
“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, according to USA Today.
Fauntroy also worries that some people, particularly African Americans, can overstate symbolic victories and substitute them for more structural changes, and that he “doesn’t want that to happen here,” USA Today reported.
Clyburn argues that it’s more than symbolic and wants to add weight to it by making it the national hymn.
How ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ Came to be
The song was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader, in 1899 and made into a song by his brother, John. According to the NAACP, it was first performed by schoolchildren in 1900 at a birthday celebration to honor former President Abraham Lincoln.
The song was written during another tumultuous period when Blacks were being lynched and Jim Crow laws were enforced, 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, USA Today reported.
“This song speaks to the people who suffered through the chastening rod,” Robinson told USA Today. “I think that the song is a different look at America, [and] is a more critical look at America while at the same time being optimistic about our present and future.”
Some advocates agree with Robinson, explaining that making this song the national hymn is a way to acknowledge the systemic racism African Americans face.
“There’s no better time than now,” Robinson told USA Today, noting how Black Lives Matter protests over racial injustice and inequalities resonated last summer in America and around the world. Protesters were chanting the song at some of them.
A few celebrities performed this song as well: Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and Rev. Joseph Lowery quoted some of its verses while delivering the benediction at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
According to USA Today, this idea wasn’t last minute: Clyburn said he considered this measure for decades.
He had asked his staff to craft the legislation: a four-page bill that cites the song’s history and calls it a “beloved hymn,” according to USA Today.
“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 during a Journal-isms Roundtable, a private discussion for journalists of color, USA Today reported. “I hope I can survive and see it passed.”
Clyburn wants to make it clear that he doesn’t intend this to take away from the national anthem, which he sings and remembers the good feeling of playing it on his clarinet a long time ago, according to USA Today.
He said that “Lift Every Voice” is known outside Black communities, and that he recalls standing next to former President Bill Clinton who “knew every word of that song” years ago.
Robinson, on the other hand, said he would be surprised if the effort was well-received by lawmakers and Americans, USA Today reported.
“For the whole nation to embrace this [song] as a way to understand our collective history … that's a tall order.”
Even so, he said that the nation “is in a period of reflection,” which might generate more support for this change, according to USA Today.
Here are the lyrics to “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 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.