The NFL has announced that the playing of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” preceding games in the upcoming season will regularly be paired with the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” referred to as the “black national anthem.” When this was done sporadically last season it drew criticism. In response, Commissioner Roger Goodell declared, “We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter…Without black players there would be no National Football League.”
That’s partially true. Without any black players there could still be an NFL, it just wouldn’t be as good. This latest move is part of what the NFL calls its $250 million “social justice investment.” Since 72% of NFL players are black, it’s understandable that the league would be sensitive to this issue, not just as a matter of social justice but also as a business decision. It wants to maintain harmony with its workforce and its labor union. On the other hand, it should consider its customer base, the fans.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a poem written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, a school principal and civil rights activist in Florida. It was set to music in 1905 by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. In those days, lynchings of blacks were a disgraceful reality in the segregated South. The lyrics to the song recount the suffering of slavery, the injustices that continued, perseverance and hope for the future. It is inspirational and uplifting. The Johnson brothers also intended it as a message to the white public to engage their sympathy and support. It’s also a protest song popular among black protest movements on college campuses.
What’s disturbing about it in the current context is just its inappropriateness as an alternative “national anthem” on a par with “The Star Spangled Banner,” and to showcase it as a controversial political statement at a sporting event. “The Star Spangled Banner” is not a political statement. It’s derived from a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 about the resilience of the American garrison at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore after the British burning of Washington. From a Royal Navy warship on which he was held captive, Key watched the relentless bombardment of the fort that night and its refusal to surrender. Miraculously, at “the dawn’s early light, our flag was still there” and the British fleet withdrew.
“The Star Spangled Banner” became our official national anthem in 1931 by a Resolution of Congress. It’s inspirational, too, and has been played at MLB games since WWI and at NFL games since WWII. The National Hockey League plays the national anthems of the U.S. and Canada together when teams from both countries are playing each other, in both countries.
Timothy Askew, is a black professor at a historically black school, Clark Atlanta University. While he loves the words and message of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he says it’s better described as a “hymn.” On CNN, he said “It should not be labeled as a black national anthem suggesting black people are separatist and want to have their own nation. Meaning everything Martin Luther King, Jr. believed about being one nation gets thrown out the window.”
The concluding lines of the hymn read, “May we forever stand, true to our God, True to our native land.” If by native land, that means America, we already have a national anthem. Nations usually have only one. If those words refer to Africa, that’s another matter.
American blacks aren’t a nation, they’re one of many demographic groups within our nation; as are whites, Latinos, men, women, Christians, Jews, Muslims, the young, the old, the rich, the poor; etc. Should all of these have national anthems? Blacks are 12% of the U.S. population, Latinos are 19%. Should they have an anthem, too? A national anthem shouldn’t divide us. It should be all inclusive and honor our country. I don’t know of any nation that does otherwise.
When some black athletes, and their white colleagues, protest racial injustice by taking a knee at a sporting event, they misdirect their anger by dishonoring the American flag and the national anthem that celebrates it. Are they not aware that the “Stars and Stripes” was carried into battle by white and black Union soldiers during our Civil War that ended slavery? Abraham Lincoln didn’t change the past. He changed the present and laid a foundation for the changing the future. It turned out to be a better one, for blacks too, and can get better yet.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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