The first football game I ever attended at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., started off like most football games.
When our marching band began playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” thousands of spectators in the stands stood quietly, some hand over heart, others reflexively mouthing the words of America’s national anthem. But then, after the last lyrics were sung (“…and the home of the brave”), the band paused briefly before launching into “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Often referred to as the “black national anthem,” it’s a song I sang in church and heard at Black History Month events as a kid. Growing up, everyone sat down whenever “Lift Every Voice and Sing” played—that’s why I was surprised to see it get such a passionate response at the game. From students and faculty to cheerleaders and players, a sea of people raised their fists in the air.
It felt like a recreation of that iconic moment at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist in silent protest against racism. They had just won the gold and bronze medals in the 200m sprint, respectively, and were standing on the podium, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played in the background. It was a Black Power salute for the ages.
On Monday Night Football, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick followed this tradition of black protest, continuing his ongoing refusal to stand during the national anthem before game time. Kaepernick previously said he won’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” While his actions have attracted the support of some, they’ve raised the ire of others, particularly in the days after the 15th anniversary of 9/11 when nationalistic feelings are running high.
But Kaepernick’s protest and those he’s inspired are reminders of America’s unfulfilled promise of freedom to black people. More than a century ago, the man behind “Lift Every Voice and Sing” understood these unfulfilled promises.
In 1900, James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem that would become the lyrics to music written by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first performed publicly that same year during a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, FL. Only 37 years earlier, Lincoln ended slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but the post-Civil War Reconstruction era had ended without ensuring equal treatment of black Americans under the law.
The words of James Weldon Johnson echoed the era’s African-American leaders, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois: Black people weren’t far from their enslaved past, but a hopeful future was coming.
By 1919, however, that future hadn’t arrived. That year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song. The year it chose was no coincidence. After World War I ended in 1918, black Americans returned home after fulfilling their patriotic duty to discover that their families were still sharecropping, Southern blacks were still denied the right to vote, and race-based harassment and violence remained a matter of fact in black lives.
History professor and author David F. Krugler documents this time in his book, 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back. That summer, large-scale race riots between whites and blacks took place across America, from big cities like Chicago and Washington to small towns like Elaine, AR. Mobs of white people organized to try to lynch black people—and many succeeded. In his role as the NAACP’s field secretary, Johnson began using the phrase “Red Summer” to describe this increase in violence by whites against blacks. According to Krugler, the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, reported that white mobs killed 77 black people in 1919—including 11 servicemen.
Adopting “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song was the NAACP’s way of protesting these racially motivated killings. At the time, black people wondered, as their ancestors did: When will it get better?
“Lift Every Voice And Sing” hits both high and low notes. The cadence meanders and marches. Lines begin with identical refrains, and then diverge:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
The song recalls pain instead of only extolling triumph:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
The anthem was written about the specific experience of black Americans, but it’s universally relatable, according to Timothy Askew, English professor and author of Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’
“‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a song that articulates a struggle for all people,” he told me. Askew added that later in the song’s life, during the 1930s, “White churches were singing ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing.’ All people were seeking a song that elevated their hopes for a new day.”
In contrast, this hopefulness is nowhere to be found in America’s official national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for which Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
These lines express Key’s desire for vengeance on black American slaves who sought freedom by fighting for the British during the War of 1812.
We amended our Constitution, as Lincoln did by adding the 13th Amendment, so why haven’t we amended our national anthem? Protests like Kaepernick’s and the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” remind us that stories of many Americans weren’t told in 1814 when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written.
When I saw those raised fists before my first football game at Howard, I didn’t know what to do. But then, after noticing how proud people were to sing a story of struggle, I was moved by their words and actions. So, I raised my fist and sang along.
Camille Acker is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She is co-editor of 'Dismantle: An Anthology from the VONA/Voices Workshop' and co-founder of the website The Spinsters Union.