WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., wants a song about faith and resilience long revered in the Black community to become the national hymn and help toward uniting the country after centuries of racial turmoil.
Clyburn, the House majority whip, plans to introduce a measure as early as this week that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, the national hymn and give it a special place alongside the country’s 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, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress. “The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”
The song is an important part of African American culture and history. For decades, it has been sung in Black communities at school plays, awards programs, graduations and church services. Clyburn said it’s time for it to also be sung in other communities.
The push comes at a time of social unrest, particularly protests over police killings of unarmed Black men and women, and the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on communities of color.
It also comes on the heels of a deadly attack by supporters of President Donald Trump on the U.S. Capitol Wednesday that sent lawmakers scrambling to secure locations and police clamoring to protect them. Five people, including a Capitol police officer, died.
Some experts and historians say the legislative push is more about symbolism and will do little to address systemic problems plaguing communities of color.
“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 K. Fauntroy, a political scientist at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Fauntroy said he worries some people, particularly African Americans, can sometimes overstate the importance of symbolic victories and substitute that for more structural changes. “I don’t want that to happen here,’’ he said.
Clyburn said the effort is far more than symbolic, saying he aims to add weight to it as a national hymn. “It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,’’ he said.
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Song comes out of history of pain
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, a NAACP leader, in 1899 and later put to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. It was first performed in public by school children in 1900 at a birthday celebration honoring former President Abraham Lincoln, according to the NAACP.
The NAACP would later adopt it as its official song.
Clyburn noted it’s early label as the “Negro national anthem.”
“I’ve always been skittish about that,’’ he said. “We should have one national anthem irrespective of whether you’re Black or white. So to give due honor and respect to the song we ought to name it the national hymn.”
The song was written during another tumultuous period for African Americans, 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.
Black Americans were being lynched. Jim Crow laws were entrenched.
“The song does not romanticize America’s past,’’ said Robinson, referring to lyrics such as “full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”
But Robinson also noted optimism in lyrics like “the hope that the present has brought us.”
“This song speaks to the people who suffered through the chastening rod,’’ he said. “I think that the song is a different look at America, is a more critical look at America while at the same time being optimistic about our present and future.”
‘No better time than now’
Making the song a national hymn for all Americans is one way to acknowledge the plight of African Americans and the systemic racism they still face, experts said.
“There’s no better time than now,’’ said Robinson, noting how Black Lives Matter protests over racial injustice and inequities resonated last summer in America and around the world.
The song was sung at some of those protests.
The NFL announced last year that it would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Week 1 games. Alicia Keys performed the song in a video.
Over the years, many celebrities, including Beyoncé , have performed the song. The late Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights icon, quoted some of its verses when he delivered the benediction at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Adopting it as a national hymn is an important step toward normalizing and codifying it as a central part of our history, said Nolan Williams, Jr., a composer, producer and cultural curator.
“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,’’ Williams said. “The plight of African Americans is a central part of American history.”
Clyburn had to build up the nerve
Clyburn said he had been considering the measure for decades. Last month, he asked his staff to craft legislation. The four-page bill, obtained by USA TODAY, cites the song’s history and calls it a “beloved hymn.”
“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 private discussion for journalists of color earlier this month. “I hope I can survive and see it passed.’’
Since 1973, six bills have been introduced in Congress to designate songs, including “God Bless America,’’ and “America the Beautiful” as a national hymn, but none of them passed into law, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931. Anthems are often patriotic songs. Hymns are more religious and songs of praise.
Williams said while he appreciates what “The Star-Spangled Banner” symbolizes, he recognizes flaws in the song, including verses that reflect entrenched racism that has plagued the nation.
“Maybe what Clyburn is doing is pushing our country to have yet another inconvenient conversation about a subject matter that is just so hard for us to grapple with,’’ he said.
Williams said Clyburn’s proposal is timely.
“In the wake of the racial awakening that we’ve had … it is an interesting prospect, this idea of ‘Life Every Voice and Sing’ being recognized as a part of that special canon of national hymns that speak to patriotism, that speak to country,” said Williams, who composed and directed a voting rights anthem, “I Have A Right To Vote,” released last summer.
Clyburn said his measure is not intended to take away from the national anthem, which he said he sings and still remembers the good feeling of playing it long ago on his clarinet.
He noted that “Lift Every Voice” is also known outside Black communities. He recalled years ago standing next to former President Bill Clinton who “knew every word of that song…He sang it better than anybody in the room.’’
In a letter to colleagues, Clyburn said making it the nation’s hymn would recognize an important part of the American experience and the possibility of unity. Clyburn said he hopes for “extensive” bipartisan support in both chambers.
Robinson, of Alabama State University, said he would be surprised if the effort is well received by lawmakers and a majority of Americans. “For the whole nation to embrace this (song) as a way to understand our collective history…that’s a tall order,’’ he said.
Still, Robinson said, the nation is in a period of reflection, which might generate more support.
Some people are “more receptive to looking at the past, not from rose-colored glasses, but through a prism that sees elements of the past as both painful and exploitive, but also (one that) produced heroes and resiliency,’’ he said.
If that happens, all Americans could soon be singing along to the lyrics:
Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter @dberrygannett