‘Till victory is won’

Eugene Williams with his wife, Mary Johnson. Williams is working to get NBA and collegiate basketball programs to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during a game during Black History Month. Photo: Julia Airey/The Washington Times
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Eugene Williams with his wife, Mary Johnson. Williams is working to get NBA and collegiate basketball programs to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during a game during Black History Month. Photo: Julia Airey/The Washington Times

‘Till victory is won’

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM alumnus is on a crusade to get the black national anthem played at more NBA and college games in February.

It was Eugene Williams Sr.’s version of a full-court jump shot. Some of his closest friends told him he would never make it. 

But getting NBA teams to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the black national anthem, at games during February is something the 77-year-old University of Miami alumnus just knew he had to try. 

So each morning, starting in late 2017, Williams would pull out a composition book filled with the phone numbers and addresses to some of the league’s 30 professional franchises, calling and writing to a handful of them with a plea to honor his request. 

To his surprise, a few teams agreed. The Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cleveland Cavaliers all played the song during at least one game during Black History Month in 2018. 

Now, Williams is continuing his crusade. As the nation prepares to observe Black History Month, which begins Friday, the Prince George’s County, Maryland resident is calling on all NBA teams to play the song, even if it’s just for one game—at halftime, during a timeout, or perhaps at the end of regulation play. 

“It’s taken on a life of it’s own,” the retired Howard University professor said of his efforts. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I need to do.” 

But Williams, even as his vision deteriorates, pushes on. Supported by his wife, Mary Johnson, he has even called the NCAA and spoken to a few colleges and universities, including UM, encouraging them to play the song at basketball games in February. 

Hurricanes fans will get the chance to hear the hymn played at two UM basketball games at the Watsco Center this season: Feb. 7, when the women’s team takes on Notre Dame, and Feb. 23, when the men’s squad goes up against Georgia Tech.

It is Williams’ love for the song that drives him. He grew up poor with eight siblings in Orange County, Virginia, attending a segregated elementary school where teachers taught from second-hand textbooks and required students to learn and sing the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Williams calls it his “freedom song.” 

“It is liberating,” he said. “It suggests to us, black Americans, that freedom and liberation are very important. It helps us to think positively about who we are as a people and where we’ve been.” 

James Weldon Johnson, an author, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist, actually wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poem in 1899. Five hundred students at Jacksonville, Florida’s segregated Stanton School, where Johnson served as principal, recited it on Feb. 12, 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music in 1905, and soon after the NAACP adopted it as its official song, dubbing it “The Negro National Anthem.” 

It became one of the most cherished songs of the civil rights movement. At Wattstax, a concert organized by Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in Watts, Los Angeles, soul singer Kim Weston performed a powerful rendition of the hymn to more than 100,000 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Even as the years rolled on, activists and entertainers continued to use the song as a rallying cry. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who, with Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, quoted part of the song while delivering the benediction at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. And just last April, Beyoncé sang some of the lines from the hymn at the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. 

Yet, Williams believes not enough people are aware of the song’s importance. Which is one of the reasons he wants it to be played at NBA games and at other sporting events during Black History Month. 

“Too few of our young people know the words to it,” said Williams, who has created his own line of caps, T-shirts, and hoodies with the title “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written across the front. “I’m talking to little kids. I’m talking to adults, and I’m undaunted by the naysayers.” 

He is aware of the controversy surrounding the hymn. Some people, even though they love the song, say it is separatist and divisive. But “nothing could be further from the truth,” said Williams. “I see it as supporting who we are. The song is a part of our culture.” 

James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics “to instill a sense of hope for blacks” at a time when Reconstruction had come to a crushing end, when segregation was the law and lynchings were on the rise, said Marvin Dawkins, a professor of sociology in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing was a symbol for blacks to move down the integrationist path,” Dawkins continued. “Not once does it mention race, and not once does it mention blacks. It’s a song meant to uplift people who are facing hardships. It’s a song for the downtrodden. In fact, with all he problems this country is facing, it resonates well today for all Americans.” 

UM Distinguished Professor of History Donald Spivey, who teaches a course on The Sixties, calls it “a song of hope.” 

“The singing of it in the 1960s was almost a prayer of what could happen, what could be,” he explained. “The playing of the song has tapered off, but we could definitely use a comeback.” 

Lift Every Voice and Sing

By James Weldon Johnson

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.

 

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.

 

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.