WASHINGTON — Several NBA teams have played what is known as an anthem for black Americans at games during Black History Month thanks in part to the urging of a retired Howard University professor.
Eugene Williams, a 76-year-old retiree in Clinton, Maryland, has made it his goal to get professional and collegiate teams to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during February. He has been calling and writing teams for the past six months.
The Washington Wizards became the fourth NBA team to play the song at a game, doing so during a timeout midway through the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night. As the song played, a video was shown with on-court highlights and Wizards players engaging in community activities.
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The Oklahoma City Thunder played it in January, Williams said. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in February.
Williams attended the Warriors-Wizards game on the last day of Black History Month to hear the song played.
“I had no idea it would amount to all of this,” Williams said.
He plans to keep advocating for more NBA teams to play the song during Black History Month. He is also reaching out to universities to include the song during games, having already heard it at Georgetown University games.
“My mission will be completed if it’s done in stadiums all over the United States of America,” Williams said. “That is my hope. That is my prayer. It will make our players feel more positive about themselves and about the game ... it will uplift their spirits as it does mine.”
James Weldon Johnson, an author, civil rights activist and educator, wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” His brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, an accomplished musician, wrote the music for the Stanton School celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. A chorus of 500 black children sang the tune.
Within 20 years, it was known around the world. The song became an anthem for black Americans during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Williams said he grew up hearing that song, and he wants current athletes to get the same feeling.
“For me it was the fight song. When I was a kid we had to learn it, we had to sing it, we performed it at athletic events, at church events,” said Williams, a Virginia native. “It has always stuck with me as something that gave me strength, gave me power, and I feel personally for those people who know it, that anthem does the same thing for them.”