Fist Pumped: A Howard student salutes the Black National Anthem on Saturday.
Fist Pumped: A Howard student salutes the Black National Anthem on Saturday. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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At Howard University football games, folks stand for the national anthem. Two national anthems, in fact.

Take that, Josh Howard!

For those who’ve had their radios tuned away from sports talk lately, Josh Howard’s the NBA player and latest violator of the Roseanne Rule, which holds: If you’re a public figure, don’t mock “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.

At a July celebrity flag-football game hosted by Allen Iverson in Landover, Howard stuck his mug in somebody’s video cell phone as the anthem played in the background and mumbled something like, “I don’t even celebrate that shit. I’m black, goddamn it.”

The video didn’t go viral until last week. Howard’s boss, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, made the mess messier by posting some hateful and racist e-mails he’d gotten about the incident on his personal Web site.

But Howard’s anti-anthem movement wasn’t in evidence at Saturday’s Howard University-Florida A&M game. Other than media members, punters, and placekickers, pretty much everybody there was black. The crowd stood at attention as the 130-piece Bison band, augmented by the Flashy Flags and the Ooh La La Dancers, blared “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The audience remained standing, and many bleacher dwellers raised their fists and sang, as the musical troupe went immediately into an instrumental version of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

“We think of that as the black national anthem,” says Howard band director John Newson.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice” was written in 1899, when poet James Weldon Johnson put his words to the music of his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, to be performed at a Lincoln birthday celebration in their native Jacksonville, Fla.

It asks that citizens remain loyal to God and country regardless of the hardships both have put on them.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice”‘s big break came in 1919, when the NAACP voted to adopt it as the “Negro national anthem.” It’s been a staple at black churches and Afro-centric public events ever since. (Musicologists and harDCore fans might be intrigued to learn that the Washington Post’s first reference to “Lift Ev’ry Voice” as the “Negro national anthem” came in a 1970 story about black lay Catholics written by William R. MacKaye, father of Fugazi’s Ian.)

In 1975, the District’s first year of home rule, the inaugural D.C. Council proposed a resolution naming “Lift Ev’ry Voice” as the city’s official song. But that measure failed, so to this day the official song of Washington is “Washington,” written by former Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd. “Washington” was named our official song on March 15, 1951. (Marion Barry played “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” not “Washington,” at his first inaugural as mayor in 1979.)

Anthems have been part of American sporting events for some time. “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t officially our national anthem until an act of Congress made it so in 1931, but the song has been played on opening days and World Series games in baseball at least as far back as the turn of the last century.

An April 18, 1902, story in the New York Times on opening day at the Polo Grounds between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies/Quakers noted that “nearly all of the 18,000 rooters rose to their feet, and many of them uncovered, when the National anthem was played.”

Slowly but surely, the national anthem went from something saved for special sporting occasions like opening days and World Series to every event.

But there were some hiccups along the way.

During the Redskins’ early years in D.C., owner George Preston Marshall dropped “The Star-Spangled Banner” and instead played “Dixie,” a song that served as the anthem of the Confederate army during the Civil War and later was a staple of minstrelsy. “Dixie” has since been discarded as a racist symbol, more because of its use than its lyrics.

The Baltimore Orioles tried to dump the national anthem in 1954, the team’s first year as an American League franchise. Art Ehlers, the team’s general manager, said he wanted to stop using “The Star-Spangled Banner” because everyday use would “cheapen” the song. But the Orioles were coerced to put it back in rotation by local officials, who pointed out the song was written in Baltimore during the War of 1812.

Nowadays, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is even played at Wrestlemanias, though often as a prop, to counter the Iron Sheik’s Iranian flag-waving routine or Nikolai Volkoff singing the Russian anthem and wearing a “CCCP” singlet. The anthem’s trickled all the way down to Iverson’s celebrity flag-football games.

But, wherever and whenever it’s played, the Roseanne Rule remains in effect.

Newson says that “Lift Ev’ry Voice” has been combined with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as part of the pregame program at Howard’s home athletic events since 1990. That year, the tune went mainstream after its release as a single by R&B singer Melba Moore, who also put together a “We Are the World”-style video featuring Bobby Brown and other pop period relics.

Newson says he’s never gotten an edict from the university’s administrators to put the song on the game-day playlist.

“By no means,” Newson says. “We don’t have to play it. I thought it was appropriate.”

There has been input from above since the song’s introduction, however. Newson says that his band originally led with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and then went into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But he changed the order in the early ’90s after a request from university elders.

“We found that kids were sitting down after ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice,’” he says, “so we switched, and now everybody stands and respects both songs.”

That was the case at the Florida A&M game, though it would be fair to say the crowd’s solemnity was more obvious during “Lift Ev’ry Voice.”

Mark Gray, who hosts “The Sports Groove,” a racially conscious sports-talk show on WOL-AM, was working the game gathering video for his blog. Minutes after the dueling anthems were played, Gray says he was hardly shocked that Josh Howard’s influence wasn’t at all apparent among the Howard U. faithful.

“He’s an idiot, No. 1, and everybody regards him as an idiot,” says Gray. “I mean, this is stupidity on so many levels. If you’re Josh Howard, you can’t make a statement like that, certainly into a camera phone

in the era of the paparazzi. But it’s not like he’s LeBron. He’s Josh Howard, and it’s not like Josh Howard is held in high esteem by anybody.”