US congressman files bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ new national hymn

25 January 2021, 12:43 | Updated: 26 January 2021, 14:05

James Clyburn files bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ US national hymn
James Clyburn files bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ US national hymn. Picture: Getty/IMSLP

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Congressman Clyburn says if passed, the national hymn would have a special place alongside the existing US anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

United States congressman James Clyburn has filed a bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ the country’s new national hymn in a move the Democrat says, “would be an act of bringing the country together”.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, popularly known as the Black national anthem, has had a place of honour in the Black musical canon for more than a century.

Clyburn, the House majority whip, put forward the proposal on 13 January, calling for the song to be given a special place as a “national hymn” alongside official US anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.

Clyburn believes it would help unite the country in a time of reckoning with its long history of racial turmoil.

“To make it a national hymn, I think, would be an act of bringing the country together,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress, told USA Today. “It would say to people, ‘You aren’t singing a separate national anthem, you are singing the country’s national hymn’.”

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

Read more: Calls for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to be replaced with new US national anthem >

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was first heard at a celebration of President Lincoln – who played a crucial role in abolishing slavery – in 1900, in a powerful moment of music-making.

Writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music and lyrics, which were performed by a chorus of 500 Black and ethnically diverse children at a segregated school in Florida.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds,” James Weldon Johnson recalled. “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.”

In 1919, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted it as its official song.

Today, ‘Lift Every Voice’ serves as more than the Black national anthem. It’s a song with a deep history of Black pride, and a stirring cry to uplift and empower. It’s gained footing in recent years, as pop artists from Beyoncé to Alicia Keys have performed it at high-profile concerts.

Referring to the now-iconic moment in the singer’s ‘Homecoming’ Coachella set, historian Lloyd Washington told NPR: “One person I must give credit to is Beyoncé Knowles. A few years back, she did a concert, and for a lot of young Black people, that’s the first time they ever heard the song.”

Read more: A professional soprano appraises Lady Gaga’s national anthem at Biden inauguration >

Last year, there were cries from musicians and historians for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, which was adopted as the official US anthem in 1931, to be replaced entirely.

Written by 19th-century author and slave holder, Francis Scott Key, the song’s place as the US anthem was brought up for debate in the wake of protests and calls for racial justice, with many believing it had run its course as the country’s patriotic song.

Read more: What are the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner? >

For Clyburn’s part, the Democrat said his measure would not take away from the national anthem, which he says he sings and recalls the fond memory of playing on his clarinet. Rather, the move to make ‘Lift Every Voice’ a hymn to sit alongside ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ would “give due honour and respect to the song”.

“We should have one national anthem, irrespective of whether you’re Black or white,” he said. “So, to give due honour and respect to the song, we ought to name it the national hymn.

“It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,” he added.

What are the lyrics to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’?

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast

God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee

Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Our native land