Sheryl Lee Ralph, Super Bowl LVII, 2023

The Super Bowl this year was a fantastic spectacle of fireworks, entertainment, interviews, fanfare and football. The game was a display of excellence led by two fantastic young quarterbacks representing the first time two black offensive play callers had faced off against each other in the sport’s largest setting. 

Before the game, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph exercised her deep, strong voice in a fantastic rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” otherwise known as the “black national anthem.” I wonder if you know the story behind that wonderful song? The song holds a powerful place in history being strongly grounded in the concepts of freedom and equality. The lyrics were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. James’ brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music years later. At that time, the United States was pitched deeply in the grip of “separate but equal” doctrines as well as the Jim Crow laws coming from reconstruction. Racism was powerful and strong, especially in the South. Intending to write a song honoring Abraham Lincoln on the deceased presidents’ birthday, James could not get past the struggles of African Americans at the time and chose to write a song voicing those struggles. The lyrics were first spoken by 500 students in Jacksonville, Florida, before music was added. Within 20 years, the song was being sung in black communities and churches across the South. By the 1950s and 60s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had become a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. In the words are references to the transatlantic slave trade, the Jim Crow system and the emancipation proclamation, as well as beautiful words of vibrant faith and hope. It is a wonderful song. I hope you will now appreciate these lyrics just a bit better.

James Weldon Johnson, Lyricist and Composer

Lift every voice and sing,

‘til 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 faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of 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 nor our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers died.

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 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 meet 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,