Posted on January 13, 2021

To Help Heal Racial Wounds, Black National Anthem Would Become America’s Hymn Under Proposal

Deborah Barfield Berry, USA Today, January 12, 2021

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., wants a song about faith and resilience long revered in the Black community to become the national hymn and help unite the country after centuries of racial turmoil.

Clyburn, the House majority whip, plans to introduce a measure as early as this week that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, the national hymn and give it a special place alongside the country’s anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“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,’” said Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress. “The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”

The song is an important part of African American culture and history. For decades, it has been sung in Black communities at school plays, awards programs, graduations and church services. Clyburn said it’s time for it to be sung in other communities.

The push comes at a time of social unrest, particularly protests over police killings of unarmed Black men and women, and the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on communities of color.

It also comes on the heels of a deadly attack by supporters of President Donald Trump on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday that sent lawmakers scrambling to secure locations and police clamoring to protect them. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.

Some experts and historians said the legislative push is more about symbolism and would do little to address systemic problems plaguing communities of color.


Clyburn said the effort is far more than symbolic, saying he aims to add weight to it as a national hymn. “It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,” he said.


“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, an NAACP leader, in 1899 and put to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. It was first performed in public by school children in 1900 at a birthday celebration honoring President Abraham Lincoln, according to the NAACP.

The NAACP adopted it as its official song.

Clyburn said, “I’ve always been skiittish” about its early label as the “Negro national anthem.”

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

The song was written during another tumultuous period for African Americans, said Howard Robinson, an archivist at Alabama State University and a member of the steering committee for ASU’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture.

Black Americans were being lynched. Jim Crow laws were entrenched.

“The song does not romanticize America’s past,” Robinson said, referring to lyrics such as “full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”


Making the song a national hymn for all Americans is one way to acknowledge the plight of African Americans and the systemic racism they face, advocates said.

“There’s no better time than now,” said Robinson, noting how Black Lives Matter protests over racial injustice and inequities resonated last summer in America and around the world. The song was sung at some of those protests.

The NFL announced last year that it would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Week 1 games. {snip}


Adopting it as a national hymn is an important step toward normalizing and codifying it as a central part of our history, said Nolan Williams, a composer, producer and cultural curator.


“The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931. Anthems are often patriotic songs. Hymns are more religious songs of praise.

Williams said that although he appreciates what “The Star-Spangled Banner” symbolizes, he recognizes flaws in the song, including verses that reflect entrenched racism that has plagued the nation.