LOS ANGELES – The Black national anthem was born more than a century ago, but the popular hymn within the African American community called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has resurrected a beacon of hope during nationwide protests.
In recent weeks, countless rallies were held from D.C. to Seattle with arm-locked protesters of different races reciting the song’s lyrics while marching against police brutality of unarmed Black people. The demonstrations throughout the U.S. were ignited by the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
Some marches were peaceful, while others turned violent. But one common thread at protests were people chanting the anthem‘s long-lasting message of faithfulness, freedom and equality.
“I saw whites singing that song saying ‘No justice, no peace’ and 'Black Lives Matter.' It's something I didn't see early in my career or even 15 years ago," recalled the Rev. Al Sharpton, referring to protesters in Minneapolis in the aftermath of Floyd's death. “You got to see people other than us appreciating our song, our anthem. This is just not a moment. This is a real movement.”
Growing up, Sharpton said he learned self-identity through the anthem, which was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson before his brother, J. Rosamond, turned it into music. The song was performed for the first time in 1900, not long after it was written.
The NAACP dubbed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the Black national anthem in 1919. The decision came more than a decade before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem of the U.S.
During the civil rights movement, the song was popular during protests with the likes of “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace." The latter was written by former slave trader John Newton, but the song helped define racial equality.
Sharpton said the ability of “ Lift Every Voice and Sing ” enduring several generations speaks volumes.