One Fourth of July Sunday at Immanuel Lutheran Chapel in North St. Louis County I picked hymn 964 in LSB (841 in ELW), written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson. “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with harmonies of liberty…Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray…Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand.” I thought the hymn spoke powerfully to our Independence Day service, “Let our rejoicing rise…high as the list’ning skies.”
At Immanuel Chapel the pastor sits behind the pulpit. When the organist introduced the hymn, I thought, “Oh no, I’ve picked a hymn no one knows.” But when the congregation of 45-50 started to sing, their voices washed over pulpit. “They know this hymn, but I don’t,” was my surprised reaction.
When 90 something Dessie greeted me after the service she said, “Thanks, pastor for picking the Black National Anthem.” I silently reacted, “Oh, I didn’t know.” For Dessie, and other older members, their freedom came with the Emancipation Proclamation and much later freedom from the Jim Crow laws. I never had to use a colored only bath room in Atlanta or sit in the colored section of the statehouse in Little Rock. When I was at the Sem in the 60’s I could go to the Fox theater and hear Stan Kann play the organ before a movie, the black people my age couldn’t.
I’m not excusing nor approving what has been happening at football games. But I know I was raised, and still deal with, a prejudice against the Ojibwa Indians in our township who lived on a reservation, though I am descended from illegal aliens who took their land and called it our own.
“May we forever stand true to God, true to our native land,” so James Weldon Johnson ends his hymn of freedom.