How two anthems shaped America and the meaning of Black History Month

AJC Sepia Black History Month

When James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” gained popularity in the first part of the last century, he was reluctant to follow the masses and label the song an “anthem,” recognizing that there was only one national anthem: Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Nearly 100 years later, Key’s anthem and Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for it made the NFL quarterback the target of conservatives and a president and the latest symbol of black power and resistance.

With Johnson and Kaepernick as bookends, AJC Sepia took a deep dive into Black History Month for a month-long series that looked at 28 people, places and events that shaped America. 

The series — written by more than a dozen AJC reporters and illustrated with video by our visuals team — is in its third year. The 2018 edition shows that black history, inhabited by the famous, the obscure and often complicated figures, is much more than slavery and “I Have a Dream.” 

Instead, it is serious, revolutionary and world changing. But it is also fun.

»MORE: Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month Series

The series looked at Fort Mose in Florida, the first black settlement in America; the 1964 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which took the lives of four little girls and changed the shape of civil rights movement; the Tuskegee Experiment and how it still informs the African-American psyche around the government and medicine; and for the first time, the series moved to Africa to profile the continent’s first black woman and only environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai

Women played a big role in the series, with stories on entertainers Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha KittJosephine BakerRuby Dee and the little-known Elizabeth Cotten, who didn’t pick up a guitar until she was in her 60s, yet became a legend. 

Georgia’s first black nun, Mother Mathilda, joins Katherine Johnson, the hidden figure who helped define space travel; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who integrated the University of Georgia before becoming an award-winning journalist; revolutionary Angela Davis; freedom fighter Harriet Tubman; and civil rights figure Fannie Lou Hamer

All women, who fought racism, sexism and in some cases, sexual violence and exploitation

With this month’s release of the “Black Panther” movie, the series explored the comic book origins of T’Challa and his nation of Wakanda. As well as the comic strip origins of Franklin, the first black character to appear in “Peanuts.” 

Speaking of fictional characters, the series was able critically examine the meaning of “Dolemite,” while looking at the complicated career of vaudevillian Bert Williams; and the racial and color politics of the “Tragic Mulatto,” a literary trope that pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux made a career out of quantifying and Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke witnessed and wrote volumes on. 

Heading toward March Madness, the series went back to 1974 and the historic University of Maryland-Eastern Shore basketball team. And finally, Louis Armstrong, the first black superstar, is featured alongside one of his unlikely heirs, Prince. 

Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month series and let us know who we should feature next year.

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