"Do football, not wokeness": Conservatives angered over Black national anthem sung at the Super Bowl

How the inclusion of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" before "The Star-Spangled Banner" on Sunday set off the right

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published February 14, 2023 5:36PM (EST)

Sheryl Lee Ralph performs during Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)
Sheryl Lee Ralph performs during Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

Sheryl Lee Ralph stole the show prior to Super Bowl LVII with an impassioned performance of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," but not everyone was a fan.

On Sunday, the "Abbott Elementary" and Broadway star became the first to perform the song, also known as the Black national anthem, from within the Super Bowl stadium. This was followed by Babyface with his rendition of "America the Beautiful." Also joining in the pre-game entertainment just before kickoff was country superstar Chris Stapleton singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," while "CODA" Oscar winner Troy Kotsur interpreted in ASL.

Ralph took to social media to share what being asked to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" meant to her.

"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). Happy Black History Month!" the actor wrote online.

While many offered their praise for her performance, several Republican lawmakers and critics slammed the NFL's decision to include two separate anthems — "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and the official national anthem — claiming that it served to further "divide" the country:

"America only has ONE NATIONAL ANTHEM," wrote Rep. Lauren Boebert. "Why is the NFL trying to divide us by playing multiple!? Do football, not wokeness."

Similarly, Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake was seen sitting during the playing of the Black National Anthem, later tweeting, "I'm just here for THE National Anthem."

Ex-Black Lives Matter activist Xaviaer DuRousseau also tweeted, "'Black National Anthem' is an oxymoron. We are ONE nation under God. If you think otherwise, you're in support of segregation. It's that simple," while author and biblical counselor Darrell B. Harrison wrote, "The NFL is making a huge mistake, in my humble opinion, by having 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' what has traditionally been referred to as the 'black national anthem,' sung at the #SuperBowl. What more divisive message could be sent than to suggest we're a nation of two anthems."

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The song's rich history

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written by James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1900. It was later set to music by Johnson's brother J. Rosamond Johnson, a composer and singer during the Harlem Renaissance.      

Johnson's tune was written as a source of empowerment for Black Americans after the American Civil War and the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which SCOTUS upheld "separate but equal" segregation. The song's lyrics feature "allusions to the transatlantic slave trade, the Jim Crow system, as well as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation," per Insider.

Here's the first verse of the hymn:

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.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" continued to hold the same power, message and impact in the following years. In 1919, 12 years before "The Star Spangled Banner" was declared the official national anthem, the NAACP named "Lift Every Voice and Sing" the "national anthem" for Black Americans.

The song recently returned to the spotlight in 2020, during nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd. It was also mentioned in Joe Biden's plan for tackling racial disparities, called "Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America."   

As for its inclusion in the NFL, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first featured during the 2020 season and has appeared in every pre-game ceremony since. Last year, gospel duo Mary Mary performed the song, and in 2021, Alicia Keys became the first to perform the song ever during the Super Bowl broadcast in a pre-recorded clip.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.