As a child in Orange County, Eugene Williams sang a particular hymn “every day, everywhere, all the time.”Williams didn’t know the history of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” sometimes known as the “black national anthem,” as he and classmates at his segregated school sang it before class, at football games and at church in the 1950s.He didn’t think about it for years after, either, as he went off to St. Paul’s College and eventually received a master’s in education from the University of Virginia and a doctorate from the University of Miami in Florida. He went on to a long career in public education throughout the Washington, D.C., area.
It wasn’t until 2017 that he received what he called a message from God to listen to the song — easier now that he can ask his Amazon Echo to play it — and get as many sports teams and schools as possible to play it, too. In February 2018, several professional basketball teams played the anthem during Black History Month; this year, he’d like several more, and his alma maters, to do the same.In a statement, a UVa spokesman said the school would not play the song.“I am a 77-year-old person with not much to do except realize my dreams,” Williams said. “I’m all wrapped up in this now and can’t let it go.”“Lift Ev’ry Voice” was written by the poet, activist and diplomat James Weldon Johnson in 1899 to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
It was initially spread simply by word-of-mouth, according to Shana Redmond, an associate professor of musicology at the University of California-Los Angeles. During the Great Migration, African-Americans spread it throughout the South and into the North. In 1919, it became the official song of the NAACP, which used it not just as a hymn but as an anthem, too.“It was particularly used to teach black children about our history,” Redmond said. “It helped them understand who they were and who they wanted to be and that the brightest future is ahead of them.”As schools integrated, “The Star Spangled Banner” became more prominent in schools, though there were some pushes to reincorporate cultural songs in classrooms.
Williams carries a battered notebook full of phone numbers and letters he’s sent back and forth with professional and college teams and school divisions to ask them to play the song. He said his goal is to add five more each year.“NBA players are required as part of their contract to stand for the national anthem, but 80 percent of them are African-American,” Williams said. (According to the 2018 Racial and Gender Report Card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 80 percent of NBA players are people of color and 70 percent are black.) “Why not stand and play the black anthem, too?”This and last winter, Williams said several college teams have decided to join in. George Washington University and Georgetown University played it last winter, and a spokesman for Georgetown said the school planned to play it during a basketball game again.But UVa has so far refused. According to Williams, he told an athletics department staff member that he had attended one of the first integrated classes at the Curry School of Education and that it would mean a lot to him. But the staff member said the school didn’t think the song was appropriate.