Eugene Williams wants 76ers fans to Lift Every Voice and Sing the Negro national anthem at an upcoming game.
But not just the Sixers. He wants every NBA and NCAA team in the country to play it at least once.
It’s part of a personal crusade for the retired Howard University professor. It’s also a matter of equity and pride.
Like many of us, Williams was outraged when President Donald Trump famously referred to NFL players as “sons of b—es" for kneeling with former quarterback Colin Kaepernick when the national anthem was played. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” can counterbalance "The Star-Spangled Banner” and its problematic third-stanza pro-slavery reference. Williams called Francis Scott Key a “bigot” for including the lyric, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave. ...”
“If you compare it with James Weldon Johnson’s anthem, there’s really no comparison," said Williams, 77, of Clinton, Md. “It does not exude the patriotism that we see in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ … because when [Johnson] wrote it, he was trying to affirm us as a people. He was trying to liberate our thinking from slavery.”
“And it’s just beautiful,” he added:
"Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty ..."
Beyoncé famously introduced it to a new generation when she sampled it during last year’s Coachella music festival.
Schools everywhere should teach it, just like they do "My Country 'Tis of Thee.”
I learned “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from my parents, who grew up singing it in the segregated institutions that they attended in the Jim Crow South.
It’s an uplifting song, full of hope and vigor. It reminds me of hard times, and how African Americans managed to thrive and triumph despite living in what essentially was state-sanctioned apartheid. Done well, it brings me to tears.
Young people need to know. And I mean kids from all backgrounds.
Williams got the idea to try to have it played during NBA games from a late-night revelation. He had turned to his Alexa device and said, “Play ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” and a version of the song performed by Kim Weston came on. He was deeply moved by it, and resolved to do what he could to have the song played more often.
According to the Associated Press, the Oklahoma City Thunder played it in January 2018. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors played it during Black History Month 2018, as did the Washington Wizards. More recently, Williams encouraged Temple University to play the anthem during a basketball game, and the Owls immediately complied, on Feb. 23.
“Our community partner Bright Hope Baptist Church was happy to join us in this effort,” said Valerie I. Harrison, a senior adviser to Temple’s president, in an email.
Williams, who sang the song as a kid growing up in Virginia, has been calling Sixers management but not getting anywhere. So, he reached out to The Inquirer and I heard him out, thought it was a good idea, and promised to do what I could.
It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. What’s one song? It would be a nice, feel-good thing to do.
Well, the bad news is that it doesn’t look likely that the Sixers will accommodate Williams’ request before their playoff run ends.
The good news, though, is that Dave Sholler, the team’s chief spokesperson, informed me via email that “I have passed this along to our game presentation team for consideration for next season.”
At least that’s not a no.
Next season? OK.