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‘Abbott Elementary”s Sheryl Lee Ralph Makes History with Super Bowl Performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

by Emmaly Anderson

Award-winning entertainer and Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph made history during the 2023 Super Bowl LVII this past Sunday with her performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” alongside American Sign Language performer Justina Miles. While millions of viewers were stunned by Ralph’s vocal prowess (and luxurious red jumpsuit), the song’s rich, powerful history is what solicited the most reactions. 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a hymn, originally written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. Commonly referred to as “The Black National Anthem,” the significance of the hymn lies in the way “Johnson’s lyrics eloquently captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans” at the turn of the 20th century, according to the NAACP, which adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an unofficial Black anthem in 1917. The song was used “as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.” 

The NFL has included “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before season opener games since the 2020 season, in response to protests in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The NFL’s decision to include the anthem has elicited controversy, including recent Twitter tirades by right-wing pundits Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who complained of “wokeness” at the biggest sporting event of the year. 

Though this is the third consecutive year the song has been a part of the Super Bowl pre-show, Ralph is the first Black woman to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the field. It was performed outside the stadium at last year’s big game by Grammy-winning gospel duo Mary Mary, and the previous year by Alicia Keys in a pre-recorded video. Ralph’s performance of the anthem is especially significant, as it fell on the same day “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first performed publicly, 123 years ago. On February 12, 1900, a choir of children that attended the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal, publicly performed the hymn for the first time ever in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

 “The blessings have been amazing, including this one, singing in front of millions of people,” the former Dreamgirls star told The Washington Post. “It’s just really neat. What an exciting time to be me!” Ralph’s Super Bowl performance follows her recent Emmy win for her role in Abbott Elementary, making her the first Black woman in 35 years to win the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series award. She was the subject of awe and admiration for her moving acceptance speech, in which she sang a verse from the 1993 jazz song, “Endangered Species.”

Photo: Screengrab from YouTube

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