Lift Every Voice and Sing

by on July 6, 2020 · 8 comments

in From the Soul

by Ernie McCray

I remember days when Mr. Sydney Dawson, one of my two favorite teachers, would raise his baton and we, the Dunbar Junior High Chorus, the best in the city of Tucson, would stand tall and proud and sing the Black National Anthem out loud, ending with:

“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”

That song, one I’ve never heard anyone sing but black people, has kept us afloat, kept us scratching and crawling and marching, pursuing a victory that perpetually has seemed both elusive and out of reach. Much like a fantasy.

And then I look up one day and I hear a man on ESPN say that at all the opening games of the next NFL season, the game will begin with the words “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the opening line of my anthem, and I thought I was in an nonparallel universe. As this seemed so out of sync with reality.

I know it’s all symbolic in its present form but condemning and firing a quarterback for taking a knee for justice and equality, in one moment, and then singing the Black National Anthem, reportedly, before the “Star Spangled Banner” – that’s quite a leap, one that seems like somebody is jerking my chain.

And then NASCAR, thought of as a “good old boys” kind of enterprise, aligns itself with Black Lives Matter, led by Bubba Wallace, its only black driver, and bans a Dixie flag from all its events and properties – and the Washington “Redskins” and the Cleveland “Indians” are talking about changing their names, making me wonder what’s the name of this game?

This sudden acknowledgement of what my people have endured throughout our nation’s history is a bit overwhelming, in a good way, for me. It seems that George Floyd’s murder triggered a freaky epiphany of some kind that has us wanting to examine the past deeply and confront it and use it as an example of “how not to be.”

I’m pinching myself to see if I’m awake as I watch discussion groups and the sharing of literature on social media bring folks up to speed when it comes to understanding my people’s history.

And it’s definitely a feeling of being on Candid Camera or Punk’d as I see, along with the changes being made in the sports world, the likes of confederate  statues being toppled to the ground and other symbols being removed politically.

In Mississippi, of all places, where my mother was born and where her father once ran for his life; where Medgar Evers died fighting for our rights; where James Meredith’s life was in danger just because he wanted to enroll at Ole Miss; where Emmett Till was lynched for “reckless eyeballing”; where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered…

And one of the biggest movie stars of all time, John “The Duke” Wayne, a man big on bigotry and white supremacy, might have his name taken off a Southern California airport in Orange County? A county whose conservative tastes were always in dark skinned folks’ face?

Why is there a smile on my face?

What’s truly remarkable to me after so many years in the struggle is that I have an intense feeling that what’s going on isn’t just window dressing, that we’re at the beginning of a true revolution, that we’re learning our history and what we need to do to right the wrongs of that history.

A little of everybody is now buying into my people’s quest, the “faith that the dark past has taught us.”

More people are feeling “the hope that the present has brought us.”

In these moments I can more clearly envision a just world for everyone because people, who had been quiet, have chosen to face, with us, “the rising sun of our new day begun,” marching with us “’til victory is won.”

The game’s still on.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ardy Shaw July 6, 2020 at 1:27 pm

Hard not to see George Floyd’s death resonate as it has…when you see a white cop cavalierly choking the life out of an unarmed black man, in broad daylight, with one hand casually in his pocket and a defiant smirk on his face, while being filmed…and other cops stupidly standing by with no expression while George loses control of his bladder and calls out for his dead mother…how can white people continue to be silent in the face of such unmitigated disrespect for life, of such horrendous murder, torture and despair. Don’t believe your lying eyes just goes so far.


Nanci Kelly July 6, 2020 at 1:30 pm

Thank you for always keeping us in touch with your vision through your writing and your tireless work! I learned about “Lift Every Voice and Sing” when I was teaching in the ’90s. I obtained a wonderful picture book of the lyrics, with beautiful woodcut illustrations (which I just tried to find on my bookshelves with no luck), and my class and I sang it through many years of teaching. One of my most wonderful memories of that time was singing it – awash in the beauty and strength that its words and melody convey – with a packed auditorium at the Mission Valley Masonic Lodge prior to hearing Rosa Parks speak (and later meeting her when she signed her autobiography) in the early 90’s. I wonder if you were there as well?


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman July 6, 2020 at 6:58 pm

Me too, Nanci, me too! I had never heard the soaring “Lift Every Voice and Sing” until I worked in San Diego City Schools in the ’90’s. That’s when Dr. Bertha Pendleton was the first African-American Superintendent of Schools, when there was a race/human relations department at 4100 Normal Street, when racially integrated schools mattered, when Ernie McCray and other talented educators of color were school principals, when the Catfish Club run by the late Reverend George Walker Smith, an African-American minister, used monthly church lunches to bring people from all over town together to discuss politics. We were far from “woke,” but we were on our way.
RIP George Floyd.


Judy Collier July 7, 2020 at 7:21 am

I learned it from Maureen Atkins, a cappella and by ear, when we were teachers at Wilson Middle School in the ‘90’s.


Wendy Ellen Cochran July 8, 2020 at 6:36 pm

Yes ! Ernie….my daughter and I are trying to figure out how to have conversations on a public platform to share our joint experiences…any thoughts???


Dr. J Arrington July 8, 2020 at 7:44 pm

God bless you for an out standing job with blessings.. Dr. J


Elaine Durson July 9, 2020 at 7:03 am

Thank you for yet another deep and meaningful article.


Thomas Gayton July 9, 2020 at 12:04 pm

My paternal grandfather, John Thomas, escaped from Mississippi in 1888 and settled in Seattle before Washington became a state. BLM


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