Charles Nero, a Bates College professor who specializes in rhetoric, film and screen studies, speaks Monday morning during the Lewiston college’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — On Sunday mornings in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Michael Sargent went with his grandparents to the Damascus Missionary Baptist Church.

His grandfather, Booker Scull, served as a deacon and sat below the pulpit with other deacons. His grandmother, Blanche Scull, a deaconess, sat nearby.

Sargent, a psychology professor at Bates College, said the youth choir he joined as a boy stood behind the minister, singing “a whole lot of hymns.”

One of them — invariably on the program for a service during Black History Month in February — was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” embraced a century ago as the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP and the subject of a workshop at Bates College during its effort Monday to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Back in 1919, the civil rights group hailed the song for “its power in voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people.”

Sargent said after he went off to college and wound up working in Maine, he left behind the faith of his youth, but always found “a special emotional resonance” in the song, written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, because he loved its message.

But it was not until he watched President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, with civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, who worked closely with King, that he realized how much it meant to him.

Delivering the benediction at the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, Lowery began his short address by quoting lines from the hymn’s final stanza: “God of our weary years/ God of our silent tears” and more.

“That is so familiar,” Sargent, 47, remembers thinking as he listened to Lowery talk. “Then it dawned on me” where the lines originated, he said..

“That’s when I began to weep,” Sargent said, overcome by the memory of those mornings in Arkansas in his “home every Sunday.”

The words, he said, “took me right back there” to that church, to that time, to people he cared for deeply.

Johnson’s song, put to music by his brother John in 1905, has had a special place for other African-Americans for generations.

First recorded in 1923 by the Manhattan Harmony Four, it has been sung by some of the legends of American music: Aretha Franklin, Leontyne Price, Ray Charles and Beyonce among them.

When Kim Weston belted out a funk-inspired soul version during a 1972 commemoration for Watts, a riot-ravaged section of Los Angeles, the audience at UCLA’s football stadium raised its arms in a salute to black power, a stunning contrast to its blase treatment of Weston’s National Anthem that opened the concert.

For Charles Nero, a Bates professor who specializes in rhetoric, film and screen studies, it is no wonder the song has such appeal.

“It is an epic song,” Nero said, able to look to a difficult past, a troubled present and perhaps a future where black people finally do reach King’s promised land.

Poet Maya Angelou recognized the power of the song as well.

In a memoir, she talked about the excitement surrounding an eighth-grade graduation from her all-black school in Arkansas, a time of happiness and hope.

Then a white politician showed up and wrecked the mood with a speech that told the crowd of African-Americans about all the goodies coming to the white high school, including new science equipment. Then he derided black students as good only at sports.

Angelou said by the time he finished, the mood had turned to gloom.

The valedictorian, Henry Reed, came to the rescue, tossing aside his prepared speech and opting instead to lead the crowd in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“And people felt powerful, prideful,” Nero said, feeling once again “their aspirations can be fulfilled.”

Johnson’s piece does not shirk from the hardships people have faced in America — “Stony the road we trod/ Bitter the chastening rod” — and the “weary years” and “silent tears” that have carried a people forward.

But it is also a song of hope, a look ahead to a time when “the white gleam of our bright star is cast” and African-Americans — all Americans, really — can “forever stand/ True to our God/ True to our native land.”

Dale Chapman, a music professor at Bates, said the tune is “bound up in fabric of the freedom struggle.”

King mentioned the song once in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the year before his death, calling it a work “with an audacious faith in the future” and praising Johnson as a “great black bard and also a great freedom fighter of yesteryear.”

After quoting part of the song, King concluded it with the line, “Where the bright gleam/ Of our bright star is cast.”

“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry,” King said. “It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair,” King said, “and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

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