Reflections on "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

As choir members clap in the background, a choir member sings into a microphone

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a time when particular songs get sung; one of them is "Lift Every Voice and Sing." It gets sung in school, in church, and at various MLK day celebrations or over the course of Black History Month.

It's a very, very powerful song — but it's often sung without context, and at times it's sung without a lot of intentionality.

When you sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," do you play close attention to the words? It’s easy, on a Sunday morning, to open the hymnal and sing along without necessarily processing what we’re saying; what the words we’re saying really mean:

sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us

bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died

we have come over a way that with tears has been watered

we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered

This song deserves to be sung with attention. It is a song that starkly names the horrors and violence of racism in this country, and it is a song that should make us uncomfortable: uncomfortable with the history that it calls upon, uncomfortable with the fact that the struggle for racial justice continues, and has not come quite so far as it should have by now. How can anyone sing the words “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” without a deep, deep discomfort?

So when we sing this song, will you join me in singing with intentionality? Will you join me in the deep discomfort that I will be feeling in singing those words? Discomfort with the pain and horror that those words refer back to, and discomfort with the fact that those words do not only refer to a distant history, but also to what is happening now?

Will you commit to sitting with your own discomfort? And then, will you tap into that discomfort and do something?

Will you lift your voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty?