A ballad widely known as the ‘black national anthem’ made its NFL debut last night during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ win over the Dallas Cowboys.
The league kicked off its 2021 season at the Raymond James Stadium and the pre-match festivities were noticeably different as the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ – America’s national anthem – was not played.
Instead, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was played to open the season after a year of racial movements that captured the imagination of American society – including professional sports.
The ballad is widely known as the black national anthem and it was written to celebrate the president who emancipated slaves around the country.
In an attempt to highlight their solidarity with players, the league announced the song would be played at the beginning of games in 2021.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was written by activist James Weldon Johnson as a poem in 1900, and his brother added music to create the song.
Johnson said he wrote the song when a member of his community in Jacksonville, Florida, wanted to organise a celebration to mark the birthdate of Abraham Lincoln.
The song became popular and was sung by children across the country, while Johnson moved to New York and became a known figure in the Harlem resistance before being appointed as a diplomat.
America’s leading civil rights group, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), adopted the ballad as its official song in 1919 and NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told The New York Times that the anthem will “highlight messages that are important to the league, players and personnel and our communities.”
The solidarity shown by the NFL comes after the leading gridiron football league were criticised for their lack of support for players.
Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick became a global name when he took a knee on the field to draw attention to such societal issues back in 2016 – and many said he was punished for his activism.
After the death of George Floyd led to widespread protests, many of the major American sports leagues showcased their support.
The NBA publicly endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement while the NFL posted numerous messages of support and announced the song will be played before games this season.
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The league also began their 10-year, $250m investment project where they donate to groups focusing on police-community relations and criminal justice.
But some fans have criticised the league for presenting an empty gesture and they questioned whether their efforts will create any change while others believe it is unnecessary to play a separate anthem.
Ultimately, the song is a powerful symbol of hope for black Americans and it will continue to be played – and singer Alicia Keys actually performed the song at last season’s Super Bowl.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is still played before every game and ceremony at many historically black colleges and universities.
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