The 2023 NFL season opened Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where the visiting Detroit Lions upset the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs, 21-20.
As usual, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung immediately before kickoff. The performer was Natalie Grant, one of the most popular recording artists in contemporary Christian music — she has been named female vocalist of the year five times by the Gospel Music Association. Her rendition of the national anthem had the crowd cheering, especially when she pointed skyward while singing: “Gave proof through the night / that our flag was still there.”
Before Grant’s star turn, however, the Kansas City Boys Choir and Kansas City Girls Choir joined in a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the hymn often referred to as the Black national anthem. In 2020, the NFL authorized teams to feature the song at home openers ahead of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Though most fans listened courteously, there was an immediate outpouring of bitterness and snark by a minority who complained that the song was an exercise in racial divisiveness and accused football officials of including it in the pregame ceremonies for those who “love the idea of segregation.” Kari Lake, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Arizona last year, tweeted an image of herself sitting, along with a defiant message: “The NFL is still trying to force this divisive nonsense down America’s throats. I won’t stand for it. Literally.” She and other MAGA conservatives had previously fumed when “Lift Every Voice” was performed before the Super Bowl in February.
Intolerant political correctness is usually a left-wing phenomenon. But this is a good example of right-wing political correctness.
I have never understood why sporting events should be preceded by the national anthem. After all, we don’t stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” when we go to the theater or an amusement park. Why at ball games? The practice began as a morale-booster during the 1918 World Series. But once it became routine, it became devalued, as witness all the spectators talk or text right through it.
Nonetheless, the custom of opening sporting events with the national anthem and other patriotic displays remains firmly entrenched. At Arrowhead Stadium last week, in addition to Grant’s performance, there was a presentation of the colors by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard and a flyover of B-2 Stealth Bombers by squadrons from nearby Whiteman Air Force Base. Whatever else might be said about the pregame events in Kansas City, they were replete with patriotic and martial symbolism.
Which makes the mean-spirited attacks on the kids singing “Lift Every Voice” not just ugly but ridiculous. Nothing about their earnest performance was divisive, let alone unpatriotic. Nor was there any suggestion that it was intended for Black listeners alone — the song is a hymn of hope and confidence in the American future, with no hint of racial animus.
The lyrics were written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, a Black educator, diplomat, and poet. They were set to music the following year by his brother, the composer J. Rosamond Johnson, for a celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday in Jacksonville, Fla. At its debut, “Lift Every Voice” was sung by a chorus of 500 children.
It was the NAACP that dubbed the song the “Black national anthem,” but its words embody no hint of racial separatism or belligerence. To the contrary: It expresses a message of uplift, unity, and optimism. And it is fundamentally religious — a prayer for God’s blessing and protection:
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent has recalled that singing “Lift Every Voice” was part of the morning ritual when he was a child attending Jefferson Elementary School in Trenton, N.J. “We sang along with it right before placing our hands over our hearts and pledging allegiance to the American flag,” he wrote.
“Lift Every Voice” has been recorded many times. Online you can hear one rendition, beautiful and stately, sung by the choir of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2016. Another, quite different but no less powerful, was performed by Kim Weston for Motown in 1968. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2018 recorded a mighty uptempo version, backed by a full orchestra. The Kansas City boys and girls who sang before the Chiefs-Lions game last week had no accompaniment, but their music was full of heart, patriotism, and faith. If anyone should appreciate those qualities, conservatives should.
This column is adapted from the current issue of Arguable, Jeff Jacoby’s weekly email newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit globe.com/arguable. Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.