Eugene Williams is the man behind the movement to have “Lift Every Voice and Sing” played before NBA games during Black History Month. (Photo by Mark Gray)
“Alexa, play ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”
Eugene Williams Sr., a retired Prince George’s County educator and former Howard University professor, spoke those words into his new voice-activated streaming Internet device and, to his surprise, it played. The song, known as the “Negro National Anthem,” not only gave him an inspirational lift that cold winter morning, it led to his embarking on a personal mission.
“I want to teach this generation of athletes and Americans the words of this beautiful song,” Williams told the AFRO. “I was shocked how many young people don’t know the words and have never even heard of it.”
Williams hoped to convince all NBA franchises to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a part of the pre-game ritual to honor America along with the “Star Spangled Banner” beginning this February. Armed with a “tenacity” that has served him personally and professionally during his career, Williams began the laborious task of contacting teams around the Association, hoping to find a receptive ear.
Instead, Williams said he learned that when it comes to matters of inclusion and social sensitivity to the demographics of its workforce the NBA remains well ahead of the curve among the four major professional sports leagues in North America. Conversations that he initiated via “primitive” means – according to today’s technological standards – were answered and responded to. Two phones calls that were made to the hometown Washington Wizards and the defending Eastern Conference champions were answered affirmatively.
According to Williams, the Wizards and Cavaliers will honor Black history by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before their home games in February. The AFRO has yet to independently confirm that each team will honor his request. However, Williams said an account executive from the Wizards and the media relations director of the Cavaliers returned his phone calls to have extensive conversations with him stating that those organizations will participate.
For a man who watched and lived through the days of Jim Crow America and the struggles for equality that spawned the Civil Rights Movement the social climate of the nation has struck a chord. He has watched the reaction to athletes of this era who express their displeasure with community issues by taking a knee during the American National Anthem and how they have been vilified from the White House to Madison Avenue.
The current reaction to these demonstrations parallel those he witnessed dealing with at-risk youth as an educator. After more than four decades working with students from early childhood to college throughout the D.C. metropolitan area, Williams has seen his share of teachable moments and this presented another one for him. In the past he has written books on historic figures which he used to break down vocabulary so that students with academic challenges or reading disabilities could actively participate in the learning process, giving them a sense of purpose.
“This is not about money or attention for me,” said Williams. “I want to help strengthen the resolve in young people and prove just how important they are to this country.”
Williams’ resolve doesn’t end with the Wizards and Cavaliers honoring Black Americans during the shortest month of year when the NBA honors the contributions of a community that revolutionized its game. He hopes that at least eight other teams will join this movement next month. His conversations continue with the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, where Craig Robinson, President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, is an assistant coach.