Mennonites’ Protest of the U.S. National Anthem Lacks Inclusivity of the Black Community: A Call to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Jacob Miller
Issue 2019, vol. 73

On Sept. 1, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the knee heard ’round the world to bring to light social injustices facing black Americans in contemporary times. During the aftermath, opinions sold faster than hotcakes, the NFL changed forever, and Mennonites applauded … some for the wrong reasons.

Mennonites’ reaction to Kaepernick garnered national attention. For instance, USA Today of Sept. 8, 2016, praises Goshen (Ind.) College for already “playing out” Kaepernick’s debate, because Goshen does not perform the national anthem before sporting events. Likewise, officials at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., explained that, if they play anything at all, it’s “America, the Beautiful,” because their “allegiance to God … transcends all nationalities.”

Like many people at Mennonite-affiliated institutions, I too prefer to put Christ before my allegiance to a nation founded through colonialism and war. However, some of us Mennonites are missing a key link between why we typically protest the anthem, and why Kaepernick protested: race. Rarely is Mennonites’ opposition to the anthem rooted in the continued violence of unequal systems that disenfranchise the black community because, as Ben Goossen, scholar of global history at Harvard University, argues, we have “Mennonite privilege.” It’s a form of white privilege “with a twist” – we focus on our suffering, our uniqueness, and our history of protest, while ignoring that we’re a part of an oppressive, dominant, white culture. Says Goossen, “Mennonite privilege is believing we don’t have it.”

While Christians in general, not just Mennonites, deflected Kaepernick’s protest and simultaneously romanticized post-racial America, I will focus only on us. White Mennonites did not invent Kaepernick. If anything, his knee requires us to reinvent ourselves.

First, a few qualifiers. Not all U.S. Mennonites are white, but a majority are. Not all of us responded to Kaepernick in the same way, but a pattern exists. Ultimately, the why behind the protest matters. So today, we must first look to how Mennonites’ decrying of the anthem generally glosses over the black community’s history of oppression, and second, reintroduce the official “black national anthem” that Mennonite institutions should play. Matthew 5:9 tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But activism without active inclusion is not peace – it’s injustice.

Despite leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl and being better than a majority of NFL backup quarterbacks, Kaepernick remains unsigned. One look at Nike’s September 2018 advertisement featuring Kaepernick (“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”) and it is clear NFL teams do not want to deal with his controversy.

But Mennonites had his back. Immediately following Kaepernick’s protests, several articles in the Mennonite World Review took a rhetorical knee of solidarity, albeit all for religious reasons. It’s perfectly fine to protest the anthem because of religion, but it should not be our sole justification, because how Mennonites preach religion can be privileged, says Drew Hart, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.

Hart goes on to say that the story of Jesus isn’t told from the perspectives of black men like him – even though Jesus was born of an unwed mother; Roman law enforcement took him out on the streets in the middle of the night, beat him and then executed him in public; and the Israelites, his people, were exiled. Hart likens Jesus’ struggle to that of black people in contemporary white America.

Don’t get me wrong – Mennonites do have a history of involvement in social justice. Many Mennonites are currently active in Black Lives Matter. Mennonite Church USA’s vision statement includes “anti-racism,” drawing from Acts 10, Galatians 3:25-29, Ephesians 2:15, and Article 9 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. But that doesn’t mean we’re less complicit given we are primarily white Americans, especially if institutional anthems don’t fully include black people’s history of oppression. Even substituting “America, the Beautiful” is problematic, because for black Americans, their beautiful “patriot dreams” have actually been ugly nightmares. In fact, Hart argues that Mennonites contributed to the systemic disenfranchisement of black people by helping create vicious national practices of housing and voter discrimination, redlining, and poor access to clean water – all disguised as peaceful racism, which is embedded within the anthems we continue to sing, anthems auto-tuned with our whiteness.

In the journal Mennonite Life, Mark Unruh’s “A Story of Faith and the Flag” details the long history of Mennonite resistance to symbols of nationalism. However, nowhere in Unruh’s account is there mention of denouncing the flag or the national anthem because of racial injustices.

Some might say, “Well, sure, but as long as we protest, does it matter why?” I make the claim it does matter. The definition of “peace” is “freedom from violence.” Nonviolence cannot fall under the same Mennonite umbrella if we’ve already rained down structural violence. That’s like saying, “I know you’re a vegan and are trying to protest the meat industry, but before you do so, you need to embrace eating a steak three times a day, every day.”

In Ephesians 2:15, Jesus’ purpose is “to create in himself one new humanity out of … two, thus making peace.” But what if one group is incarcerated en masse? In her seminal 2010 book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander says there has been a “sevenfold increase in the prison population in less than 30 years due to rising crime in poor communities of color.” One in three black men will go to prison at some point in their lives, leaving us to wonder: Did the plantation just move to the prison yard? Galatians 3:28 perhaps answers: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free” – we are “all one in Jesus Christ.” Are we? Are we doing our best to live out this creed?

Michelle Armster, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States, suggests that the black community needs “new songs” because white people have appropriated all of the “old” ones. Absolutely – and in fact, one old song could have new implications.

In 1919, the NAACP declared “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the black national anthem, mmore than 10 years before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official U.S. national anthem, in 1931. Logan Stacer, a Kansas State University forensics competitor, was crowned a 2016 national champion in informative speaking with this very topic. I asked Stacer if I could share his message, and his response was, Sure, the more ears the better. So let’s look at the song’s history, implications, and application for Mennonite institutions.

Pick up a copy of Mennonites’ current hymnal, Hymnal: A Worship Book, flip through it, and you’ll find “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Mennonites borrowed “Lift Every Voice” from black church hymnals, but how much do we really know about its history?

James Weldon Johnson originally wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poem, and on Feb. 12, 1900, 500 black children recited it to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A few years later, as noted by Fusion (Sept. 14, 2016), black Americans who had served in World War I to fulfill their “patriotic duties” returned home to find they were still be denied the right to vote and still forced to sharecrop to survive. In 1919, white mobs killed 77 black Americans. To protest, the NAACP immediately adopted “Lift Every Voice” as the black national anthem.

Debate about whether it should be sung in place of the U.S. national anthem or alongside it led to its decline. Nearly 90 years later, on July 1, 2008, jazz musician Rene Marie, at Denver’s state of the city address, broke into “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played in the background.

Stacer explains the implications of reexamining this anthem. “Lift Every Voice,” he says, provides us with a frame of reference for “critiquing other symbols” that maintain our current power, structures like the American flag, the U.S. Constitution and the Bible. Moreover, “Lift Every Voice” helps us understand that patriotism “relies on historical symbols of white supremacy, not love for our country,” repositioning “The Star-Spangled Banner” “not as the national anthem, but the nationalist anthem.”

So what can Mennonites do to ensure peaceful racial inclusion through song? To begin with, never play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Period. I don’t understand why Bethel College still plays it at sporting events. It’s better to substitute “America, the Beautiful,” but even that’s not enough. Institutions should play “Lift Every Voice” alongside “America,” while also respecting the black community’s possible desire that “Lift Every Voice” not be played. There is a fine line between inclusion and appropriation.

Most importantly, Mennonites need to fully understand and support why Kaepernick, the black community, and others protest the U.S. national anthem and other nationalist symbols, without acting like we fully relate to their oppression or have nothing to do it. Violence isn’t just bombing – it’s the policies and the prison cells we helped build. So don’t kneel to protest our anthem’s history because we’re nonviolent. Protest because we know we will always be complicit in the violence.

Today, after uncovering the white Mennonite protest veil of some, and illuminating the official black national anthem, one thing is clearer: the dialogue furthering our race for peace must include race. In Stacer’s words: “Regardless of your politics or predispositions,” even on Kaepernick’s knee, everyone “should agree that a song calling to lift every voice and sing is a song worth standing for.”

Works Cited

Acker, Camille. “Forget ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ – Listen to the Black National Anthem.” Fusion, 14 Sept. 2016, http://fusion.net/forget-the-star-spangled-banner-listen-to-the-black-nat-1793861888, accessed 15 April 2017.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Armour, Nancy. “Goshen (Indiana) College’s Decision to Move from not Playing Anything before Sporting Events to Playing ‘America the Beautiful’ in Place of the Anthem.” USA Today, 8 Sept. 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2016/09/08/goshen-college-national-anthem, accessed 14 April 2017.

Armster, Michelle. “New Songs.” Keynote address, Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship conference, 11 Feb. 2017, Bethel College, North Newton, Kan.

Bates, Katharine Lee. “America, the Beautiful.” U.S. Flag Site, 1913, http://www.usa-flag-site.org/song-lyrics/america/, accessed 8 May 2017.

General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1995.

Goossen, Benjamin. “Mennonite Privilege.” The Mennonite, 9 Mar. 2017, https://themennonite.org/ feature/mennonite-privilege/, accessed 17 April 2017.

Hart, Drew. “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.” Address in Bethel College Convocation Series, 13 Feb. 2017, Bethel College, North Newton, Kan.

Key, Francis Scott. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Smithsonian, 1814, https://amhistory.si.edu/star spangledbanner/the-lyrics.aspx, accessed 8 May 2017.

Lapp, Eva. “White Privilege and Patriotism: Mennonites, Colin Kaepernick and Protest.” The Mennonite, 3 Oct. 2016, https://themennonite.org/opinion/white-privilege-patriotism-mennonites-colin-kapernick-protest/, accessed 12 April 2017.

“Peace.” Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/peace, accessed 8 May 2017.

Stacer, Logan. “The Black National Anthem.” Informative speech at the American Forensic Association National Individual Events Tournament, 3 April 2017, Peoria, Ill.

Unruh, Mark. “A Story of Faith and the Flag: A Study of Mennonite Fantasy Rhetoric.” Mennonite Life, vol. 57, no. 3, Sept. 2002, https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-57-no-3/article/a-story-of-faith-and-the-flag-a-study-of-mennonite/, accessed 12 April 2017.

The Bible. New International Version. Biblica, 1978.