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Most on NYC council sing “black national anthem” after pledge

New York City's legislative body sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the "Black National Anthem," before an all-members meeting Oct. 27, 2016. The council's three Republican members did not participate in the song, but came later for the meeting. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

Much of the New York City Council followed the Pledge of Allegiance Thursday with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the turn-of-the-20th-Century hymn known today as the black national anthem — a show of solidarity with nationwide protests against racism.

Organizer and Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. (D-Brooklyn) said he felt compelled to sing because “communities of color” are disproportionately harmed by economic injustice and police abuse.

“We as leaders have a duty to confront bigotry, and we choose to do so through unifying action, even in the face of divisive rhetoric,” he said.

Thursday’s singing wasn’t the council’s first public protest this year against racism. Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) has for weeks remained seated during the pledge, a demonstration that several of his colleagues joined.

In 1900, hundreds of Florida schoolchildren first performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday. James Weldon Johnson, a writer, educator and the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam, wrote the song as a poem in 1900. The NAACP later adopted it as the organization’s official anthem, according to a PBS history of the song.

Among the lyrics: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

Not all council members sang — or attended Thursday’s meeting at first — including the three-member Republican minority, who arrived later for legislating.

Councilman Steve Matteo (R-Staten Island) said in a statement: “I respectfully declined to participate.”

Afterward, the council went about its regular business, including unanimously passing a bill regulating freelance work in the city.

Under the bill, sponsored by Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), any freelance work totaling at least $800 over the course of 120 days must be set out in writing. The bill sets a deadline for payment, provides penalties for unpaid work, and grants legal fees if a freelancer needs to go to court to collect. Retaliating against a freelancer for exercising rights under the bill would be illegal.

Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, would not say whether he plans to sign the bill — Introduction No. 1017-C — but said the mayor “supports laws that protect all New York workers.”

“Every person must be paid on time and treated fairly, whether their work is freelance or not,” Boeglin said.

The council also passed a bill requiring that city jails distribute absentee ballots and other voting help to inmates. Most people in city jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted. Prisoners with a felony conviction in New York State lose the right to vote until they complete their sentence and finish parole.

Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Queens), indicted on corruption charges and free pending trial, sponsored the bill. Only Matteo voted no.

De Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein would not say whether he would sign the bill but said he “supports efforts to make it easier for voters to obtain absentee ballots.”


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