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Editorial: 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' promotes unity; Ricketts' criticism is divisive

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand / May we forever stand

“True to our God / True to our native land / Our native land.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts finds this divisive.

We disagree and, while we understand his political motive all too well, are saddened that the governor has taken to weighing in on every single cultural issue.

Even a song.

Even a song rooted in the American story that celebrates freedom.

Even a hymn of reverence and gratitude to the same God the governor worships.

Even a song deeply meaningful to Black Americans as a recognition of their arduous journey from slavery toward American liberty.

For those not familiar with this dust-up, Ricketts on Nov. 5 issued an official statement complaining that “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which the NAACP in 1919 declared to be the “Negro national anthem,” was being played alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Husker basketball games.

Ricketts’ statement said, “There is only one national anthem for the United States: It’s the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s a symbol of our national unity and it’s the only anthem for America that should be played before Husker games. If athletic programs are going to play other ‘anthems’ before games, what has historically been a moment of patriotic pride will become nothing more than a series of political gestures that will divide Nebraskans based on their identity rather than bringing us together.”

In fact, it is Ricketts’ comments that were as divisive as they were needless. Were he seeking a solution, rather than scoring cheap political points, he could have reached out to the athletic department behind the scenes. But solution and sensitivity clearly were not his goals.

Let’s rewind to the awful summer of 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests it launched nationwide. Confronted once again with our country’s struggles with race relations and equity, business and political leaders promised positive change — as they have so often before.

Ricketts was among them. After a kerfuffle when Black leaders said the governor referred to them as “you people” in a meeting — Ricketts said it was "you guys" — he told Black radio personality William King he was “learning the culture” of the African American community.

At a separate news conference, he said issues for communities of color and access to equal justice “are real and important.”

Among the institutional responses to events that summer was a decision by many sports institutions to begin playing “Lift Every Voice” along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games. The NFL did it. The NBA did it. The National Association of Basketball Coaches suggested it for college games, and all Big Ten teams that stay on the floor for the playing of the national anthem now also play “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

These sports are dominated by Black players, and including the song is a show of respect. These great athletes are not stage performers for White fans who get to set the rules. They are stakeholders, and it is only proper to include their views in shaping their competitive and work environments.

The Nebraska athletic department’s response to Ricketts was both perfect and mature. It is changing the order in which the songs are played, with the national anthem first, men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg said. Next, “We will clear the flag and then to promote unity and inclusion, we will play ‘Lift Every Voice’ after that.”

We don’t think anyone was confused about which song was the U.S. national anthem, as Ricketts seemed to suggest, but the change is a reasonable compromise.

Besides being the right thing to do, playing “Lift Every Voice” is helpful in showing recruits that Nebraska is a welcoming place.

That’s true not just for athletes. It is absolutely essential for our future economic health. Business leaders across the state have long recognized that Nebraska must promote and live out diversity and inclusion if it is to attract and retain millennial and younger workers needed to address our acute labor shortage.

The Ricketts administration drew praise on these pages for adding $10 million to its campaign called “The Good Life is Calling” to attract these workers — but the governor routinely undercuts the needed messaging.

Back in June 2020, Ricketts asked King to judge his heart, and apologized for using “trigger words.”

Has his heart changed? Or, perhaps, the potential for GOP political gain from hooey such as overhyping critical race theory and criticizing hymns is just a lot more important to him.

Playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before basketball games is not divisive. It is respectful and extends a musical hand for us all to grasp in unity.

Ricketts’ regrettable choice to put politics before equality and inclusion deepens the division that is tearing at our national fabric. We would be better served if our leaders instead chose to promote healing.


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