The Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off in professional American football’s first game of the season. But before they do, fans will hear something a little different. It started as a song to celebrate the president who emancipated America’s slaves. Its writer thought little about it afterwards, but it took on a life of its own.
Now “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – a ballad widely known today as the US black national anthem – will be played at the opening game of the National Football League’s (NFL) 2021 season.
The song is being played after a year of racial tumult that touched almost every corner of American society, including professional sports. Male professional leagues are dominated by young black men, and in an effort to show more solidarity with players, the NFL said it would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the beginning of games this season.
It’s the first time the song that has meant so much to so many will regularly open American professional sports games.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1900 by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson as a poem that his brother set to music.
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson said the song was written when someone in the community wanted to organise a celebration to commemorate the birth date of Abraham Lincoln.
Copies of the song were made for the occasion and it was “taught to and sung by a chorus of 500 coloured school children,” he later recalled.
A powerful hymn that calls upon all to sing “Till earth and heaven ring/Ring with the harmonies of Liberty” its lines reflect the gratitude of freedom for black Americans while describing aspirations for betterment:
“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…Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Johnson later moved to New York and became a well-known figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was eventually appointed as a diplomat by the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
“The song passed out of our minds” when he moved north, he later said. “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.”
In 1919, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the country’s premier civil rights organisation, adopted it as its official song.