“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” is also popularly known as the Black National Anthem. It is a familiar composition in the African American community traditionally sung at events ranging from church meetings to graduation ceremonies to public assemblies. In fact, most Black people know at least the first stanza.
Now South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn wants to attach new meaning to it with plans to introduce a measure to make the song America’s national hymn, giving it a place of honor along with the national 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, according to USA Today. “The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”
The song was first written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson and later set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. According to the NAACP website, the song was first performed in 1900 by schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Fla., for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. James Weldon Johnson was principal of the school they attended.
The NAACP dubbed the song the “Negro National Anthem.” As the Harlem Renaissance began to take shape, the song started to become more popular in Black communities, especially after Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington endorsed it, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
"Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds,” Johnson wrote in 1935. “But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.”
The lyrics tell of Black people's struggle from slavery to emancipation and of hope with a steady march toward the future. But more than a century after it was first composed, Clyburn sees it as something that can help unify a nation sharply divided along political, social, and cultural lines.
Clyburn said calling the song an anthem only for Black people made him “skittish” and that his idea gives it a different position.
“We should have one national anthem irrespective of whether you’re Black or white,” said Clyburn. So to give due honor and respect to the song, we ought to name it the national hymn.”
The measure is something he has been thinking about for years, he said. But it was only last month that he asked his staff to put together the legislative language.
“I’ve been toying around with an idea now for two or three decades, ever since I’ve been in the Congress,” Clyburn said during a roundtable discussion with journalists of color early last week. “We have a national anthem, we don’t have a national hymn. I would love to see that become our national hymn, and being sung at events, not as the Negro National Anthem, but as the United States of America’s national hymn.”
Other songs have been called the nation’s national hymn. One, “God of Our Fathers,” was written by George William Warren in 1876 at the nation’s centennial, another listed on the Library of Congress website under the name “American National Hymn.” Since 1973, lawmakers have tried introducing legislation to officially pick a song. “God Bless America,’’ and “America the Beautiful” were among those considered, but nothing ever became law, USA Today reports. But there hasn’t been an official declaration of a national hymn, like there was of a national anthem when “The Star-Spangled Banner” got that designation in 1931.
“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,’’ Nolan Williams, Jr., a composer, music director,and theatrical producer, told USA Today. “The plight of African Americans is a central part of American history.”
Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call