This year, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) is bringing some extra attention to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and sponsoring a bill that would make it the US national hymn.
“My goal is to make a contribution to trying to bring this country back together,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon on Silence Is Not an Option. “I just think that if we were to make this hymn our national hymn, it will help us to really create a climate within which we can find common ground.”
After the racial reckoning that unfolded last year, in January, he sponsored HR 301.
Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, where he has represented South Carolina’s sixth congressional district since 1993. He said he’s been waiting nearly two decades to introduce legislation ratifying the song as the national hymn. “I always loved the song. Over the years, I wondered about whether or not that song should take a national relevance, rather than being confined just to the quote unquote Black community.”
According to historian Imani Perry, the composers of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, never intended their song to be anthem for Black America, let alone a national hymn.
The song’s lyrics describe the hopes and struggles experienced by Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Originally penned as a poem 1899, the song was first performed publicly a year later by 500 school children in Jacksonville, Florida. Since then, it has circulated by word of mouth, in churches, schools, and protests, and in 1919, it was declared the official song of the NAACP.
Most recently, Alicia Keys performed the song before Super Bowl LV. After the game, Rep. Clyburn reiterated his support for making the song the US national hymn.
Though the song was originally written by and for Black people, Rep. Clyburn said the struggles and hopes it describes also reflect the experiences of many groups in America.
“If you really look at the words, read them, and think about the experiences that the Irish have had, when they came to this country and what they were running away from. Same thing with Italian Americans. That song can apply to them just as much as it applies to Black Americans.”
For this reason, he believes that embracing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the national hymn would be a step toward healing the country’s racial divisions. He hopes the move will also reinforce this country’s acceptance of Black people as fully integrated citizens, in a way that the national anthem does not.
Some, including Rep. Clyburn, have criticized “The Star-Spangled Banner” for its references to slavery in its lesser known third stanza. The song’s lyrics read: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Rep. Clyburn thinks it would be a meaningful gesture to put Francis Scott Key and James Weldon Johnson on the same footing in our national songbook.
“I don’t reject the national anthem. I just think that Francis Scott Key just didn’t have as much respect for my forebears as he should have had when he was writing the words to that song,” said Rep. Clyburn. “Whether we like it or not, that is our national anthem, and that national anthem that we love so much talked about preserving slavery and keeping people in servitude. We can’t change what Francis Scott Key did. What we can do is work to overcome it, and this would be one small gesture toward making our motto real: e pluribus unum.”
When Rep. Clyburn announced his proposal in January, he received mixed reactions. Some praised the idea, while others misunderstood that he was trying to replace the existing national anthem. Questions were also raised about whether a national hymn would alienate non-Christians, but Rep. Clyburn thinks of it as a non-denominational hymn that could unite our diverse nation. “All of us sing the national anthem, irrespective of your religious background, your cultural background, so all of us will sing the national hymn. We may think in religious terms, but a hymn is much broader than any one religion or one denomination.”
Rep. Clyburn’s biggest battle may be convincing people that a symbolic gesture of healing will not supplant efforts for more substantive changes.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to get beyond Covid-19. We’re going to do what we need to build a tremendous infrastructure program, what we need to do to create more jobs, better health care, decent housing. Those are the substantive facts, but songs that can be sung as we carry out these duties and responsibilities help to create the kind of climate that we need within which to be more productive.”
This year, Black History Month 2021 comes in the midst of a pandemic, yet another impeachment hearing, and in the wake of a violent insurrection at the Capitol. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” may not be a cure-all, but it could provide some solace and much needed hope for a path forward.
After all, it’s been doing so for over 120 years.