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Rep. Clyburn Wants To Make 'Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing' The U.S. National Hymn

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING")

STANFORD TALISMAN: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's Stanford Talisman choir's Zoom rendition of the hymn "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing." It's often called the Black national anthem, but South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn wants to broaden its distinction.

JAMES CLYBURN: If you read it and think about the people who inhabit this great country, that song could apply to any one of them.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Clyburn has filed a bill in Congress that would make "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing" the U.S. national hymn, which would put it on a par with the national anthem. It was adopted by the NAACP as that organization's official song in 1919.

CLYBURN: And I think that's what made people start referring to it as the Negro national anthem, which I don't think does real justice to the song.

KING: The song started out as a poem written by a writer and activist from Jacksonville, Fla., James Weldon Johnson. His brother then set it to music. It was first performed in 1900 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Over the years, many Black pop stars have sung their own versions of the Johnson brothers' hymn. It's also taught in churches and schools. But Jacksonville historian Lloyd Washington says a lot of people in Johnson's hometown don't know the origin.

LLOYD WASHINGTON: You can go to Atlanta, you can go to Tampa, or you can go to New York, and they'll tell you, yes, he was born in Jacksonville. But when you talk to several people here in Jacksonville, they don't have a clue.

INSKEEP: Washington has made it his life's work to preserve the history of the Johnson brothers and their hymn of perseverance over racism. It's been hard at times to get people to care until recent years, when he says the Black Lives Matter movement embraced this song and Black pop stars once again reinvented the hymn for a new generation.

WASHINGTON: One person I must give credit to is Beyonce Knowles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Till and Earth and heaven ring.

WASHINGTON: A few years back, she did a concert. And for a lot of young Black people, that was the first time they ever heard the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING")

BEYONCE: (Singing) The harmonies.

KING: Washington says making "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing" the national hymn would be a significant step toward recognizing the Johnson brothers' contributions to American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Let our rejoicing rise... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.