My sister Nina and her husband, Ray Martin, were missionaries in Kenya. In 1988 they returned to the United States. Ray became the pastor of the Methodist Church in Steele. Nina introduced me to the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," page number 519 in the United Methodist hymnal. The words to the song were written by James Weldon Johnson and the music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in 1921.
I thought about that song when I heard of civil rights leader John Lewis’ death. Civil rights marchers often sang as they walked. North Dakota’s own Byron Knutson walked with Lewis and Martin Luther King and many others, from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 in the voting rights march. Knutson talked about that march at the 2011 celebration of the King holiday, and we sang “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.”
Adm. William McRaven, a former Navy Seal, talks about his fellow trainees up to their necks in chilling mud, trying to endure until daylight. When he thought men would break, and quit, someone in the darkness started singing. Even though ordered to quit or face more time in the mud, others joined in. (Watch the YouTube video)
Like McRaven and Navy Seals, James Weldon Johnson knew enduring pain. Johnson writes “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?”
J. Rosamond Johnson wrote the music. He takes his uplifting melody down in a low guttural groan to sing these words “we have come over a way that with tears have been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out of our gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast."
I came of age during violent times. The death of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, church bombings, Kent State, the war in Vietnam, the draft and Watergate. I thought the current generation does not understand us boomers, too busy discovering new phone apps to be concerned about racial justice. Then came video of the killing of George Floyd and there they came. Those millennials, generation Xers, professional athletes, celebrities, talk show hosts, comedians, Muslims, Portland mothers, getting their heads knocked, sprayed with tear gas, boldly enduring the cold violent night in America for the daylight of justice.
The Martin Luther King Holiday Commission has featured "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at every holiday since 2011. Now the NFL will feature this song at football games. While the song is sometimes referred to as the Black national anthem, it is really America’s song. It is a song about all of us, weary with the years of struggle, swallowing our silent tears, searching in darkness, cold and silence to find the path to freedom.
When asked why he went to Selma, Knutson said he met Black men in the United States Army in Korea and thought they were getting a raw deal. He went to Selma to stand with them. James Weldon Johnson calls us now, in this time of racial strife, “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.” Come on brothers and sisters, in the words of John Lewis, let's get into some good trouble. Lift your voice and sing.
Bill Patrie has been recognized for his work as a cooperative developer by the National Farmers Union, the Association of Cooperative Educators and the National Cooperative Business Association.
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