A retired professor’s dream to bring back a song that inspired him when he was growing up was realized last month.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a long-time anthem for African-Americans, holds deep meaning for former Howard University professor Eugene Williams from Clinton, Maryland.
The 76-year-old has been writing to professional and collegiate basketball teams for six months petitioning that they play the song at games. Last month several NBA teams featured a rendition of the “Negro national anthem,” as it is known.
The Washington Wizards, Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Golden State Warriors all played the song in February, Black History Month.
“I had no idea it would amount to all of this,” Williams said.
“For me it was the fight song. When I was a kid we had to learn it, we had to sing it, we performed it at athletic events, at church events,” Williams remembered. “It has always stuck with me as something that gave me strength, gave me power, and I feel personally for those people who know it, that anthem does the same thing for them.”
“My mission will be completed if it’s done in stadiums all over the United States of America,” he said. “That is my hope. That is my prayer. It will make our players feel more positive about themselves and about the game . . . it will uplift their spirits as it does mine.”
Brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson wrote the music and lyrics for the song in 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Fla. Five hundred black children sang it there for the first time.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s later adopted the song as their anthem, and it was cherished by African-American civil rights leaders such as Maya Angelou. It remains in the hearts of the African-American community today, and is still sung by several protestant and African-American denominations.