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A chance to lift every ear with song

MLK Jr. celebration will include anthem of American spirit

When Michael Robinson steps forward to sing the Black National Anthem at the 16th Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration Monday in Ashland, it's safe to say the song won't fall on a lot of familiar ears in this overwhelmingly white community.

The only reason I'm aware of it is that it was sung two or three times during the 13 years I was involved with the celebration, says former celebration organizer Tom Olbrich.

Olbrich, who is white, says the song, the actual title of which is Lift Every Voice and Sing, was presented in past years both as part of a skit and as a stand-alone performance.

Robinson, a Southern Oregon University junior, originally suggested other songs for the program, says River Walker, vice president of the SOU Black Student Union.

When I asked him to sing that song, he suggested some others he thought were more exciting, says Walker. He's doing it like a gospel song you'd hear at a black church.

— The song was written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, a black educator, poet, novelist and civil rights pioneer. In his senior year at Atlanta University, Johnson was galvanized by a speech by Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and editor, at the Colombian Exposition, the landmark world's fair held in 1893 in Chicago.

Johnson was a school principal in segregated Jacksonville, Fla., when he wrote the lyrics for the song. The music was added by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music.

The song begins like this:

Lift ev'ry voice and sing

Til Earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list'ning skies.

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Johnson went on to become the first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar, an American diplomat in Venezuela and Nicaragua, a writer and poet. He became general secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1920 and later wrote Black Manhattan (1930), an account of the Harlem Renaissance, when black New York became a vibrant home to a large number of black poets, novelists, dramatists, essayist, musicians and intellectuals.

Walker, 26, who was raised in Portland and is now a senior at SOU, says many if not all of her friends know the song at least in part.

It's more familiar to black Americans who were raised in black communities, she says ' like her parents, who grew up in black communities in Chicago.

They heard it more, she says. For me it was a way to reconnect.

Walker says Robinson, who is also a football player, is known for his singing voice. He'll sing the song a cappella.

He's always around campus singing to the girls, she says. He's a little bit in the tenor range.

She says it would not surprise her if some people thought the anthem a bit separatist, a point of view she understands but does not find convincing.

I think the point is not separatism, she says. It's just to bring pride and inspiration to our own community.

Monday festivities set for Ashland The 16th annual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday takes place from noon to 1:15 p.m. Monday at the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St. Bluesmen and recording artists the Holmes Brothers will be joined by Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors, singers, students and others. The OSF's Tim Bond will be master of ceremonies.

Doors open at 11:45 a.m. Seating is first come, first served. It's free, but a donation to Rogue Valley food banks is encouraged.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail