Rep Clyburn set to introduce measure in hopes ‘black national anthem’ becomes official national hymn

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A song known as the “Black national anthem” would become the official national hymn of the United States under a proposal being pushed by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

The South Carolina Democrat plans to introduce a measure which he hopes will heal racial wounds in the country as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” would become the national hymn. The song would reportedly not be replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but would have a place alongside America’s national anthem.

“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,’” Clyburn said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song,” he added.

(Image: C-SPAN screenshot)

James Weldon Johnson, the former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote the original poem in 1899. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, later set it to music and it became the song that, reportedly, has long been sung in the black community. The NAACP adopted it as its official song and it was first publicly performed by school children in 1900.

“It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,’’ Clyburn said.

But the 80-year-old Democrat pushed back on the idea of the song’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.”

Clyburn also noted that he had been thinking of the measure for many years.

“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 in a private discussion for journalists of color. “I hope I can survive and see it passed.’’

Composer and producer Nolan Williams Jr. noted the importance of the song and adopting it as the national hymn.

“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.”

“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 added. “In the wake of the racial awakening that we’ve had … it is an interesting prospect, this idea of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ being recognized as a part of that special canon of national hymns that speak to patriotism, that speak to country.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times:

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.’’

 

Michael K. Fauntroy, a political scientist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., worries that a symbolic victory for the song may lead some to forget about more concrete changes.

“I don’t want that to happen here,’’ he said. “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.”

The song was sung at some Black Lives Matter protests last year and, as the NFL announced last year, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner” were played before Week 1 games. Singer Alicia Keys also performed the song in a video released in September.

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Frieda Powers

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