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Could the Key to National Unity Lie Within the Verses of a Song?

Photo of the music for "Lift Every Voice and Sing"
Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio

The song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has long been regarded within the African-American community as the Black national anthem. Its lyrics reflect a life of struggle, but also perseverance and faith. Many, like Army veteran Harrison Jenkins, first learned the song in church and/ or grade school.  By the time time he was in highschool, the Berkeley County native was singing the song as a member of the school's chorus- where it was mandatory to learn the song in its entirety.

"We were a predominantly black school, from middle to poor economic class; that song was like a unity song for us, there was pride behind it."

Jenkins attended school in the small town of Saint Stephen, in Berkeley County. More than half the population is African-American and many in the mostly rural-area are not far removed from struggles historically experienced within this demographic.

"When I was growing up in Pineville, we still had cotton fields, said Jenkins."

Some of Jenkins family were sharecroppers. As a child, he helped work in fields.

"We used to pick cucumbers. I used to pick tobacco. I lost my first fingernail on the back of a tobacco trailer."

Salena Altson, another Saint Stephen High School chorus member, first learned the song at home with her grandmother. It wasn't until she was in high school when she was able to fully understand the song's lyrics.

"We had to learn what the stanzas meant, we had to learn what the words meant.  It helped me to see that even though we were enslaved, [and] we are this people that had been oppressed, we come out of it."

Like Jenkins, Alston agreed the song seemed to have a unifying element to it, but she also said that unity was felt beyond the school's majority African-American student population.

"We did have white people and other nationalities on the choir and they learned it right alongside with us."

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first written as a poem by author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson. According to the NAACP, the song was set to music by Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and first performed in public their hometown of Jacksonville as part of a celebration of Lincoln's birthday.

Within the three verses of the song, reminders of generational struggle, hurt and injustice are melodically tied to words and phrases of not only encouragement, but also instructional calls-to-action, like 'Let us march on 'til victory is won,' and 'May we forever stand.'

Alston said when she thinks about the song today, the emphasis on harmony is what she remembers most.

"One of the lyrics is ring with the harmony of liberty. Its not just our voice singing this song. We're harmonizing with everyone; a whole collective of people."

Its that same element of unity and harmony Congressman James Clyburn is hoping the song will have for other communities across the country. Clyburn represents South Carolina’s 6th Congressional district, which includes the town of Saint Stephen, he recently filed a bill to make the decades-old song  national hymn, to be honored alongside the natinal anthem.

"The words of the song can fit any group of people who;ve come to this country in search of liberty and justice."

Like Jenkins and Alston, Clyburn says the song has been with him for a very long time.

"I grew up in a parsonage, so the song was in our hymn books. I've known the song all my life."
The highest-ranking African American in Congress said the throught of honoring the song dates back to his teenage years and when first started is tenure in U.S. House of Representatives,  introducing legislation to do so was always on his mind. H. R. 301 was introduced in the House of January 13, the same day the body voted to impeach Donald Trump, for the second time.

LISTEN: Instrumental of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Music by Caleb Eaddy.

Lift Every Voice and Sing Lyrics: Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning 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 ’til victory is won. 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, ‘Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has 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.