This is the weekend to revisit, with greater understanding and appreciation, one of our country’s finest – and darkest – moments. The Civil Rights movement shaped most of the mid-20th century and has more recently expanded in scope to include differences of sexuality, physical abilities and ethnicities. Standing up to injustice by sitting down at lunch counters…naming systemic inequalities by making those on the winning side of the imbalances uncomfortable…choosing love over hate…when does the work of seeing what is wrong in order to make it right end?
In recognition of the powerful work of reconciliation effected by Dr. Martin Luther King, that great hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing will undoubtedly be sung by millions of voices around the country this weekend. It was first performed in 1900 as a poem read during a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in a program at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, an event at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest that day. Imagine the power of these words on the ears and hearts of people just 35 years from slavery.
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 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.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast’ning 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, 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 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.
There are A LOT of recordings of this song on YouTube, and I spent more time than I should to find just the right one. I didn’t want a soloist, or something glossy and over-produced. I didn’t want it to be sung by a highly skilled Gospel choir or a staid, perfectly in-tune, yet soulless, choir. This is a hymn for all people. True story – I memorized this hymn and we sang it as my husband and I walked down the aisle at the end of our wedding in 1999. A hymn for all people, and all occasions!
There is one line that I ponder each time I play this hymn though, the final line True to our native land. What is our native land? Were African-Americans in 1900 thinking about some part of Africa? About the United States, where everyone in that first audience was mostly likely born? Or could we claim this song for everyone by thinking about our native land as that heavenly land where we are loved regardless of skin color or political beliefs or “differences” of any kind? Perhaps a native land where reconciliation is not just a goal, but already complete.
I am reading a biography of Harriet Tubman these days. Her story refuses to allow us to see slavery as anything other than the cruelest institution, one that was damaging in different ways to people of every skin color. If an audience just 35 years away from that dark past can sing about facing a rising sun and marching until victory is won, then we are obligated today to continue rising, continue marching, continue standing, true to what is right, because the past has followed us and demands to be examined.