As for “Lift Every Voice,” it isn’t just a song, it’s a history lesson, a thanksgiving prayer and a call to unity that resonates now – on Martin Luther King Day – more than ever.
Since last MLK Day, two unarmed black people, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have been killed by police in brutal fashion and Jacob Blake was shot seven times at point blank range by another law officer. That incident, like Floyd’s was videoed and seen by the world.
Fueled by those killings and other similar incidents, ongoing social justice protests have spread across the nation.
And then 12 days ago, a right wing mob – most of them white, many waving Donald Trump flags, wearing red MAGA caps and carrying weapons – battered its way into the U.S Capitol while the House was in session.
Targeted lawmakers were just able to escape, but the mob killed one Capitol policeman, injured many others – even beating some with the poles that held their American flags – and ransacked offices and defaced statues.
The police were overwhelmed – though a few posed for selfies with the thugs and one even donned a MAGA cap – and their reinforcements were mysteriously held up.
This was a far cry from the national guard troops – many whose IDs had been removed – who were called in to stand around the Lincoln Memorial earlier this year because higher ups anticipated violence at a peaceful George Floyd protest.
The difference in treatment – many of the Floyd protesters were back – provided a glaring spotlight on white privilege and white supremacy unchecked.
As the brutality of the Jan. 6 attack has been exposed, lawmakers and law enforcement have realized the threat at hand, especially with reports of more violence planned for Washington D.C. or statehouses around the nation as the country prepares for Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden to replace Trump as the U.S .president.
King comes to the fore
That’s the backdrop for this MLK Day which is normally celebrated -- including by several of our athletic teams – in notable fashion here, but this year is stymied by the shelter-in-place rules caused by the ever-surging COVID-19 pandemic.
The annual marches in Dayton and Oxford won’t be held this year and the scaled-down festivities at Central State will be virtual.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. answers questions at The American Lutheran Church Luther League convention in Miami Beach on Aug. 16, 1961. (The Miami News/Jay Spencer)
Wright State teams would usually be involved in activities as well, but COVID has cancelled all that, too.
“It’s usually a holiday where we do community service, but we’re trying to keep our teams in quasi bubbles now, which is really unfortunate,” athletics director Bob Grant said in an email. “Our community service is just another in a long list of things that is taking a hit during the pandemic.”
Yet, while the virus has plagued us for over 10 months now, the spirit of Dr. King has come to the fore time and again.
As he once put it:
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
Many people – regardless of race, gender or age – have taken that to heart in the past year. The Black Lives Matter marches drew big crowds – often with athletes involved – across the nation.
As the 2020 election approached many sports teams took on various voting initiatives, whether it was registering and informing voters of issues or getting them to turn out at the ballot box.
When Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA, pushed to get the league to keep players from publicly embracing Black Lives Matter issues, Dream players followed Dr. King’s lead.
Loeffler had trumpeted her stance as part of her senate reelection campaign and figured it would draw in a big, right wing base.
Her Dream players never mentioned her by name, but instead wore shirts that proclaimed “Vote Warnock” – the name of Loefller’s opponent, the Reverend Raphael Warnock. They campaigned for him and his polling numbers went from 9 percent in July to nearly 33 percent when he was the surprise winner of the November election.
Locally, this season the Dayton men’s basketball team has often worn Black Lives Matter shirts in warmups and on the sideline.
Today the Atlanta Hawks will be wearing Black Lives Matter jerseys in their game against Minnesota. One of the shirts – bearing the No. 1 and with “Frances” printed on the back – was sent to the Vatican, where it was blessed and autographed by Pope Frances the other day.
He’s a big follower of the NBA’s social justice push, especially after he was visited in Rome a couple of months ago by a contingent of players: Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli, Sterling Brown, Jonathan Isaac and Anthony Tolliver.
Miami RedHawks players are involved today in boxing up food for the needy and even though they are sidelined, some WSU players understand the importance of today.
After Saturday night’s 85-49 victory over Cleveland State, the Raiders’ leading scorer (17.1 points per game) Tanner Holden – who had 23 points and eight rebounds against the Vikings – talked about Martin Luther King Day:
“It’s a big deal to all of us. I feel like with everything going on in society there is more of an appreciation of him and what he stood for. I think this year people are starting to know more about Black history.”
Wright State guard Tanner Holden is covered by Cleveland State guard D’Moi Hodge during a Horizon League game at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Jan. 16, 2021. Wright State won 85-49. Contributed photo by E.L. Hubbard
‘A great song’
Some of the best lessons are coming just before each game with the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The poem was written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson and set to music in 1905 by his brother so 500 Jacksonville schoolchildren could sing it in honor of Lincoln.
In a 1935 collection of his poems, James Weldon Johnson wrote about what happened to his poem after the kids in his hometown put it to song:
“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children.
“Within 20 years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country … The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”
Since then it has been sung by everyday people in churches across North America and has been by covered by celebrities like Beyonce, Melba Moore, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and the mezzo soprano Denycc Graves.
It was played at the opening of Spike Lee’s move “Do the Right Thing” and was recited almost verbatim by the Rev. Joseph Lowery in his benediction at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Four years ago, when the white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida, the song played from the university’s carillon to provide a tonic to his message of hate.
This year the NFL had the song played or performed before every team’s first game. Alicia Keys opened the season and performed it live before the Super Bowl champ Kansas City Chiefs kicked off.
Wright State coach Scott Nagy is the chairman of the Horizon League coaches’ committee that decided the song would be played before the games of every men and women’s team in the conference this season
“It’s a great song,” Nagy said after Saturday’s victory, his 100th at Wright State and his 510th overall as a head coach. “When you read the lyrics, it’s just a beautiful song. We read them to our team. Some of them knew about it, some didn’t.”
They all know it know. It provides the most educational, uplifting and heartfelt moments of the Wright State pregame celebrations.
Like Nagy said: It’s just “beautiful.”