By TOM REISENWEBER, Erie Times-News via AP
Every time Kelvin Jefferson hears the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” _ also known as the Black national anthem _ he takes time to reflect.
He reflects on the deep meaning of the words and the history of the song.
Throughout his previous coaching jobs, he heard the song only one time related to sports.
“When I was coaching on the Division I level, we went to a historically Black college for a game and they played the Black national anthem before the game,” Jefferson said. “I remember that I knew about the song, but I never heard it played before a game. Some of the other coaches and most of the players had no idea what it was, but the song has great history and education.”
After last summer’s protests nationwide over social justice, the Gannon men’s basketball coach felt the time was right to approach the school’s administration about making a change.
“With everything that went on this year with George Floyd and everything else, the NCAA encouraged Division I and II schools to play it before games,” Jefferson said. “Once we got to the point I knew we were going to play, I went to the administration and they were 100 percent for it. They were very supportive for everything we are trying to do for equal rights and diversity.”
Not only did the Gannon administration approve the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” after the “Star-Spangled Banner” before every men’s basketball home game, school officials took it a step further. They decided to play the song before every home game of every sport.
“The Black national anthem is a song about faith and resilience. The decision to play the Black national anthem is one of many efforts to foster change,” said Walter Iwanenko, the provost and vice president for student experience at Gannon. “It is also a reminder that we must work together and listen to the experience and hope of all our students and co-workers and to commit now to a culture of inclusion and genuine friendship that celebrates what makes each of us who we are.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a poem written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, put it to music for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905. James Weldon Johnson was the principal of a segregated school at the time, and preparations were being made to honor Lincoln and the arrival of guest speaker Booker T. Washington.
In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declared the song the “Negro National Anthem”.
The song wasn’t as widespread as the national anthem, but there were several memorable performances of the song. In 1923, the male gospel group Manhattan Harmony Four recorded the song, which was added to the National Recording Registry in 2016.
The song has been featured in movies and has been performed at concerts throughout the years. It was in the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, a movie that received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. In 1990, Melba Moore released a modern version, which included singers Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder.
One of the most public moments for the song took place in 2009 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights movement leader, recited the third stanza of the song to begin his benediction at the ceremony.
On July 2, 2020, the National Football League announced the song would be played or performed live before the national anthem during Week 1 of the regular season.
The next generation
“I think the biggest thing is education,” Jefferson said. “We have players on our team Black and white that did not know there was a Black national anthem. This is an opportunity to educate them on something that has deep historical meaning, and we want to start the conversation hoping it leads to more conversation and dialogue.”
Most college athletes range in age from 17 to 23 years old and their generation is seeing social justice movements take place.
“I loved the idea of playing the song, and Coach has been a big supporter on campus for everything going on lately, especially Black Lives Matter,” said Gannon senior Sean Colosimo. “The gist of our season is in February, which is Black History Month, so this is important to all of us. We attended a few services in honor of Black Lives Matter last semester, and we had a Martin Luther King Jr. service in January. We love basketball on this team, but we also know there are more important things going on and we have a platform for change.”
For Gannon women’s volleyball coach Matt Darling, the song has personal meaning. The volleyball team will play several home matches this spring with the song being played before each one.
“This summer was transformative with all of the social justice things that happened, and that transformation was led by people that are the same age as our players,” Darling said. “From a personal level, my wife grew up in Detroit and they sang the song in their school every day when she was a kid. She sang the song to our kids, so it has a lot of meaning to us as a family.
“I’m glad to see the acknowledgement that unity has to be more at the forefront in our country, and for our school to support it is great.”
Members of the women’s basketball team also supported the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the pregame.
“The song and playing the song makes a statement that we are all in this together,” said Gannon point guard Boston McKinney. “I think it’s important that all voices are heard and we are taking a stand for it with everything going on right now. Sports is a huge platform and people look up to athletes, even college athletes. It makes everyone want to jump on the train and change things.”
For women’s basketball head coach Cleve Wright, the idea goes to his faith.
“I think it’s important for us to be aware of what’s going on in our community and to be inclusive. Gannon is an inclusive university, and I love that our administration wants to bring this song to all of our events,” Wright said. “If you want to talk about my faith, we are put on this Earth to love everyone God puts in front of us. We want to do that in everything we do, and by playing and understanding the Black national anthem, I hope it makes everyone feel included and recognized.”
Gannon is one of the first schools in the country to include the Black national anthem in its pregame ceremony. The song was first played on Jan. 12 before the Golden Knights’ women’s basketball game against Miles College in the afternoon and later that night before the men’s basketball game against Kentucky State.
The song has been played at every Gannon home event and will be for the foreseeable future.
“I think the big thing is for young Black players to be able to say that they have something for themselves that belongs to them with deep meaning and history,” Jefferson said. “It’s a point of pride and gives them something that recognizes them before games. It’s a big deal to recognize the song before games because the words have a deep meaning. It’s a song of resistance and resiliency that we are going to continue to push forward and you can’t hold us back.”
Many professional sports made social justice a priority over the past year as one of the biggest platforms in the country.
“Sports is the one place that people from different races and social economic backgrounds come together and cheer for the same team or same person,” Jefferson said. “You can have different political beliefs, but sports bring us together. When we didn’t have sports locally and nationally it hurt all of us, but to see the NBA finals come back and football return was big. Sports brings all of us together, and to use that platform for change is important.”