James E. Clyburn
Symbols matter, but there is no substitute for substance, and believe me I get it. But the power and importance of symbols are the reasons I believe designating “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as America’s national hymn would be a substantive step in our pursuit of “a more perfect Union.” If you saw Alicia Keys sing this stirring anthem at the Super Bowl, you will know what I mean.
I take to heart the reticence of those who argue that such an act would do nothing to feed the hungry, house the homeless or provide jobs to the unemployed. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1900 by an African American, James Weldon Johnson, to celebrate the 91st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson. It is a hymn that acknowledges the difficulties of our past and challenges of the future. Consider the following words:
Inspiration will help bring progress
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been designated the official song of the NAACP and is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. But I believe its appeal is much more universal and its words applicable to nearly every ethnic background in America. My legislation does not seek to supplant the national anthem but to supplement it with a national hymn. As a youth, I proudly played the Star-Spangled Banner on my clarinet and often sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the Glee Club.
I accept the critique of those who find this effort more symbolic than substantive. But I am often criticized by friends and acquaintances for being too modest about my legislative accomplishments. As a rule, they may be correct. But there are exceptions to most rules. So, to those who question my commitment to substance, I invite a cursory review of a little of my legislative record.
The first bill I co-sponsored after being sworn into Congress was to raise the minimum wage. The first bill I introduced was to name the new federal courthouse that had been proposed for Columbia, South Carolina in honor of the legendary civil rights attorney Matthew J. Perry, Jr. That precipitated a pitched battle because the legendary anti-civil rights U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, wanted it named in his honor. But I prevailed and became one of only two freshmen of the 103rd Congress to have a bill become law. That courthouse is symbolic to substantive commitments and sacrifices.
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Tourism is a top industry in South Carolina, and heritage tourism is one of the industry’s fastest growing sectors nationally. But when I arrived in Congress, we did not have a National Heritage corridor. Today we have two. South Carolina did not have a National Park. Today we have three. Yours truly was a sponsor of all five of these highly substantive economic engines and was the author of four of them. My plethora of restoration and preservation bills for historically black colleges and universities, 10-20-30 funding formula, and the Rural Energy Savings Program are just a few of my substantive legislative achievements.
I realize that it would be symbolic to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has been published by more than 40 religious publishing houses, our national hymn. But I believe it could help create a climate for some very substantive accomplishments.
National anthem verses don’t soar
With all due respect to Frances Scott Key, I am familiar with the history of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which did not become our national anthem until 1931. The first verse is soaring and patriotic and we all learn it at a young age. However, few people are familiar with the other verses, the third of which contains the following lines:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and home of the brave.
While historians may debate whether “hireling and slave” referenced enslaved Africans or were euphemisms for Americans’ subservience to the British, it is clear that Mr. Key’s “land of the free” didn’t include those held in bondage.
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Our nation is at an inflection point as we continue to struggle with issues of race. It is my hope that we can reach an acknowledgement and acceptance of our past as we work together to build a stronger future. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”) is symbolic of our aspirations. Enshrining “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as our national hymn will be a substantive step towards “liberty and justice for all.” Reflect upon the following:
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D.-S.C., is the House Majority Whip. Follow him on Twitter: @WhipClyburn