walter_t._richardson_4.jpgJesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.” This is the most important, the first on any list.  But there is a second to set alongside it: “Love others as well as you love yourself.” These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them. –  Matthew 22:36-40

More than 100 years ago this month, the words to James Weldon Johnson’s poem Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing were recited by 500 school children in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
The phrase “harmonies of liberty” from that poem, later turned into a song now called the Negro National Anthem, intrigued me.

As a youngster, I knew the difference between harmony and melody and I wondered why Johnson’s poem did not read “melodies of liberty.” As I grew older as a budding musician, I understood better the relationship between melody and harmony.

The melody is the established tune. The harmony consists of the notes that complement the melody. Melody appeals more to the human mind if it is characterized by harmony. The melody generally dominates a song but, if it is presented without harmony, it is less appealing to the mind and ear.

So it hit me. Much had been done by some to establish melodies of liberty in America but there was not much harmony. Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Act which made it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, national origin, religion or gender.

The melody of liberty for all citizens was well established but now there was the accompanying harmony.

We’ve come a long way since 1964, when fewer than five percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Today, 77 percent do so, according to a Gallup poll. In 1970, a majority of Americans still opposed efforts to end gender inequality.

By 2010, 97 percent of Americans supported equal rights for women, according to the Pew Research Center.

The number of elected black officials in the country has soared, growing from 103 in 1964 to more than 10,000 today. Since 1990, there have been two African-American secretaries of state and President Barack Obama, an African American, is now in his second term.

More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus established the harmonies of liberty when he said in essence that love of God has to be established first, then love of neighbor would result. The implications of this simple yet profound thought are many.

What creates dissonance and annoying noise are the unpleasant sounds in society where there is socio-economic, political and spiritual conflict with the melodies of liberty. Communities are in conflict because there is no established melody line and, consequently, no harmony can result. Families are in conflict when there is no established melody line for which there can be no harmony attached.

So, in essence, Jesus says to us, harmonies of liberty result when love of God is established first, then love of neighbor comes, in that order. The love of neighbor can exist only when there is an awareness of God. For to know God is to love Him.

Harmonies of liberty include affirming one another’s identity, acknowledging one another’s gift and announcing one another’s viability, all aimed towards realizing our shared hopes and working for the common good.

The civil rights challenge for the next 50 years will be to carefully and prayerfully find ways to work simultaneously in harmony for socio-economic justice, along with racial and gender equity.

Lord, let us work in harmony for the common good of all humankind!

*Walter T. Richardson is pastor-emeritus of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in South Miami-Dade County and chairman of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board. He may be contacted at Website: