Lift Every Voice and Sing

Ahead of last week’s home football game, I e-mailed Kennesaw State University’s public affairs department to offer a solution to the kneeling cheerleader controversy. After the National Anthem, play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn adopted as the Black American National Anthem by the NAACP in 1919.

The gesture, I said, would signal the university’s acknowledgement and validation of what the cheerleaders are peacefully protesting. I proposed KSU officials tell the cheerleaders what was planned and request they stand for both anthems.

Of course you know the lyrics of the National Anthem. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” goes like this:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
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;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

These evocative words were originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother five years later.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
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, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

As relevant today as it was a century ago, this anthem captures the essence of the African American struggle; their experience as slaves, then as second class citizens, and now as targets of violence because of the color of their skin.

 God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

I’m in awe of black people in the face of so much historical cruelty and hardship. After centuries of brutality, hostility, and disenfranchisement, the lyrics remind us African Americans stay true to their faith and pray for a better tomorrow.

But I’m also saddened. Instead of a rationale dialogue, the cheerleaders have drawn only the outrage of many white people who characterize them as ingrates, spoiled and unpatriotic, claiming the economic and social progress some blacks have enjoyed cancels out any right to peacefully protest the killing and physical abuse of unarmed, non-violent African Americans by police.

“We know it’s a political thing,” said Dean Bonner, president of the Cobb County NAACP. “We think (the cheerleaders) are heroes.”

Last week, KSU President Sam Olens finally announced the cheerleaders would be permitted back on the field during the National Anthem after the university consigned them to the metaphorical back of the bus, out of public view in the football stadium’s bowels.

“While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment must be protected,” Olens told the KSU community.

To Bonner’s point about “a political thing,” Olens relented after news broke last month that a couple of Cobb County politicians attempted to strong arm him into denying the cheerleaders their constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights. What business these Republican elected officials had meddling in a state university’s internal matter is under review by the Board of Regents.

Meantime, let’s hope President Olens’ on-the-record pledge to uphold campus free speech extends to inviting progressive speakers and presenting controversial art exhibits that might offend the sensibilities of some conservatives. KSU is a public institution of higher learning, after all, not a right wing indoctrination facility.

I didn’t go to last week’s football game so I don’t know if the university took up my suggestion about playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” As it happens, the cheerleaders didn’t kneel. Instead they respectfully stood and linked arms in solidarity on Veteran’s Day, when a grateful nation honors the noble sacrifices of our veterans and their families.

Kevin Foley