At 75 years old, Eugene Williams Sr. has embarked on a self-directed mission: to persuade NBA teams to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (otherwise known as the “Black National Anthem”) before its games in February (otherwise known as Black History Month).
Every day when he wakes up in his home in Clinton, Maryland, Mr. Williams opens a composition book (the kind you might use to take an essay test) and riffles through its names and telephone numbers — contact information for NBA teams and their staffers.
Then he starts making cold calls.
“This should be sung as well as the national anthem,” the retired English teacher said in an interview. “Particularly for the NBA players.”
Professional football players sparked a gridiron firestorm this year when many of them took a knee during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the start of their games. The kneeling, first begun by former quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year, was intended to protest police brutality against black men across the country.
But the action was widely interpreted as disrespect for the flag, the troops and the country by many NFL fans and President Trump, who has called for the kneelers to be fired.
Mr. Williams says he’s focusing on the NBA because its players are contractually obligated to stand during the national anthem. Since they can’t kneel in protest, perhaps they could stand in solidarity for another anthem that celebrates the patriotism and resilience of black communities, he said.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1900 by black poet James Weldon Johnson, who at that time was the principal of a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music for the poem in 1905. The NAACP designated it as the “Negro National Anthem” in 1919.
“There have been instances in the past when teams have added a performance of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” an NBA spokesperson told The Washington Times.
In fact, Stevie Wonder blended “Lift Every Voice” into the end of his performance of the national anthem during the 2005 NBA Finals.
Mr. Williams’ love for the song is rooted in his childhood in Orange, Virginia, where he grew up poor with eight siblings.
“We learned it at school. But we sang it at church, we sang it at athletic events,” he says. “It was a requirement.”
His wife, Mary Johnson, who worked as a math teacher for 30 years before opening a D.C. charter school, also recalls learning “Lift Every Voice” in school as a child.
“And at the school I founded — the Washington Math Science Technology Charter High School — we have it in our program,” Ms. Johnson says. “The students sing it every year.”
Mr. Williams and Ms. Johnson have worked together in writing and publishing several education-related books, manuals and pamphlets over several years. Now the charter school founder is helping her husband in his mission to persuade the top 10 NBA teams to play “Lift Every Voice” — especially his two favorite basketball teams.
“If I get no one else singing it, I will get the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” says Mr. Williams, who has published a word search puzzle featuring Cavs’ star LeBron James.
A Washington Wizards spokesperson confirmed that the team had received Mr. William’s request but could not comment on whether management is considering it.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were not immediately available for comment.
With his eyesight failing, Mr. Williams must use a Sharpie to update the notes in his composition book in thick black ink. He can’t see computer screens well, so he uses Amazon’s home assistant Alexa for help researching teams to call. His wife writes emails for him.
Despite the obstacles, he’s determined to keep calling.
“It becomes a daily exercise,” he says.