To Heal Racial Wounds, 80-Year Old Rep. Jim Clyburn Wants Black National Anthem, More Symbolism

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Written by Ann Brown
Black National Anthem
To Heal Racial Wounds, 80-Year Old Rep. Jim Clyburn Wants Black National Anthem, More Symbolism.Photo: In this photo taken Dec. 9, 2015, Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of S.C., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

While most of his congressional colleagues are discussing what action to take against Donald Trump for inciting an attack on the U.S. Capitol, Rep. James Clyburn is also focused on making the Black National Anthem — “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — the national hymn.

The move would be symbolic healing, according to Clyburn, the 80-year-old House majority whip from South Carolina. Clyburn plans to introduce a measure that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the national hymn, and give it a revered place alongside the country’s anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” USA Today reported.

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

While Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress, thinks the gesture would be appreciated in Black America, others see it as empty symbolism. 

“It’s symbolically notable for Black people, but in the larger scheme of things this isn’t going to put food on people’s table, it’s not going to increase people’s pay,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, a political scientist at HBCU Howard University, in a USA Today interview.

Twitter, of course, responded.

“Clyburn, so instead of reparations or real policy for us, you’re working on policy for “Lift every voice and Sing” as a national hymn?,” wrote one tweeter.

Another person tweeted, “Sir, we are on the brink of civil war. Singing can’t save us.”

https://twitter.com/AmbaBreffu1811/status/1348865012958425090

The song, which speaks of the struggle of Black America from slavery to freedom, has been sung in Black communities at school plays, awards programs, graduations, and church services for decades.

“It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,’’ Clyburn said.

But others agree with Clyburn, saying the adoption of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the national anthem is more than symbolism — it’s an acknowledgment of African Americans’ continuing struggle against systemic racism.

“This song speaks to the people who suffered through the chastening rod,’’ said Howard Robinson, an archivist at Alabama State University and a member of the steering committee for its National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture.

“I think that the song is a different look at America, and is a more critical look at America while at the same time being optimistic about our present and future,” Robinson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s no better time than now.”

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

The NAACP went on to adopt it as its official song.

In 2020, the NFL announced that it would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Week 1 games. 

Clyburn said he had been considering proposing the measure for years. “Ever since I’ve been in the Congress, I’ve been trying to come up with enough nerve to introduce a national hymn,’’ Clyburn said during a private discussion for Black journalists earlier this month. “I hope I can survive and see it passed.’’

Other songs have been considered for the national anthem over the years. In all, since 1973 there have been six bills introduced in Congress to designate songs, including “God Bless America,’’ and “America the Beautiful” as a national hymn. None of the bills made it into law.