About two and a half years ago, sitting in his living room in Clinton, Maryland, Dr. Eugene Williams Sr. had “an epiphany.”
He knew the National Anthem was performed at most NBA games. But what about “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the song often called the “Black National Anthem”?
“I thought it would be inspiring to have that song performed at each game,” Williams says. “It may even lessen the marginalization that the players experience on the NBA teams.”
So, the next morning, the 78-year-old retired Howard University professor and Dunbar High School administrator got up early and launched his campaign: to convince teams and schools across the country to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Two years later, Williams has contacted NCAA teams, NBA teams, colleges and school systems across the country. He’s had success with the Washington Wizards, the Golden State Warriors and the Brooklyn Nets, as well as many colleges in the DMV. Just a few weeks ago, the University of Maryland played the song before a basketball game against Rutgers University.
How does Williams do it? He’ll often write letters, but he’s found that the most effective way is to call from his living room telephone. “I have Alexa,” Williams says. “You know Alexa? You can get any number you want from Alexa.” He’ll ask for the number to the LA Lakers, say, write it down, and call. Often, he’ll get bounced around to multiple people before he reaches the right person. It’s a strategy that “works like a charm,” Williams says.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” comes from a poem by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson that his brother and composer John Rosamond set to music in 1899. The song’s rousing lyrics made it a favorite among civil rights activists in the 1960s: “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.”
Williams first learned “Lift Every Voice” at his segregated grade school in his hometown of Orange, Virginia, in the 1950s. The fact that “young boys and girls today” might not know the words to a song so central to African American history and activism is deeply troubling to him, he says.
He thinks the song belongs everywhere—in classrooms and on the court. In the NBA, where the majority of players are black but the majority of owners and coaches are white, the anthem could serve as a way for players to express both pride and protest.
“When I hear [“Lift Every Voice and Sing”], it inspires me,” Williams says. “It empowers me. It liberates my thinking about being a black person in America,” he says. “I think it can do the same for others.”
It’s hard for Williams to pick his favorite rendition. “Have you heard Beyoncé sing it?” he asks enthusiastically, then starts listing other favorite versions by Melba Moore and Kim Weston. “She does such a fantastic job,” he says of the Weston rendition. “It is so patriotic. It makes you cry.”
Right now, he’s working on getting the DC School System on board—hoping to repeat the success he had in Prince George’s County, where he convinced the public schools to issue a proclamation encouraging all schools to teach students the song during the month of February.
“I do things in increments. One step at a time, one step at a time,” he says. In addition to spending hours of his day on the phone, he’s also working on delivering T-shirts and caps embroidered with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to young students in nearby schools. (He designed the logo himself.)
His project “has become like a job,” Williams says. Every day, he follows a routine: “I meditate, before I get up, on what I’m going to do that day. I think of the person I’m going to call, and the teams and NBA teams. And then I rise about 10 o’clock and I write down my agenda,” he says.
“And then I go at it.”