The pageantry of the Super Bowl extends well beyond the game itself, from the commercials to the halftime show and the pregame performances. And in recent years, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has become part of the tradition of the big game.
Often called “the Black National Anthem,” the song has been around for more than a century and played a prominent role in the civil rights movement.
It was performed at the 2023 Super Bowl by actress and singer Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Here’s what to know about the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and how it became a part of the Super Bowl’s musical side:
How ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ became ‘the Black National Anthem’
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” “was a hymn written as a poem,” the NAACP explains, written by one of the group’s leaders, James Weldon Johnson, in 1900. Johnson’s brother John Rosamond Johnson composed the music.
“A choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal, first performed the song in public in Jacksonville, Florida to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,” the NAACP notes.
The song gained prominence in the early 20th century, current NAACP President Derrick Johnson told NPR in 2018, when it was endorsed by Booker T. Washington and was named the official song of the NAACP.
“Set against the religious invocation of God and the promise of freedom, the song was later adopted by NAACP and prominently used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s,” the NAACP adds.
It is to this day often referred to as “the Black National Anthem.”
Numerous renditions of the song have been performed over the years, from Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick to Beyoncé.
How ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ became part of the Super Bowl
The NFL began incorporating “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into its pregame routine during the 2020 season, in the wake of widespread protests over police brutality and other racial injustices sparked by the police deaths of George Floyd, Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor.
“As a child attending Jefferson Elementary School in the Trenton, NJ, public school system, the song was part of our morning ritual. We sang along with it right before placing our hands over our hearts and pledging allegiance to the American flag …,” Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations, said in a statement at the time. “It has encouraged generations of Black people that God will lead us to the promises of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It’s as pertinent in today’s environment as it was when it was written.”
Alicia Keys performed the song via pre-recorded video at Super Bowl LV, while Mary Mary did the honors at Super Bowl LVI.
“It is no coincidence that I will be singing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing at the Super Bowl on the same date it was first publicly performed 123 years ago (February 12, 1900),” she wrote on Twitter ahead of her performance. “Happy Black History Month!”
Who else performed at the 2023 Super Bowl?
In addition to Ralph, R&B singer Babyface and country singer Chris Stapleton also performed pregame at the 2023 Super Bowl.
Babyface sang “America the Beautiful,” and Stapleton led “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Music star Rihanna was the halftime performer, singing some of her greatest hits and unveiling some exciting personal news.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ lyrics
“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ‘til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”
This story was originally published February 13, 2023, 2:00 PM.