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Pennsylvania school district's decision to cut Black national anthem from student concert raises concerns

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A Pennsylvania school district's decision to remove a song from a recent student choral concert has divided the community and spurred a review by a civil rights group.

"Lift Every Voice And Sing," a late-19th century hymn sometimes referred to as the Black national anthem, was among several songs that were to be performed during the May 7 show by the Spring Cove Middle School chorus. The Altoona Mirror reported that district officials cut the song the day before the concert, saying students had voiced concerns about the song and the "divisiveness and controversy in the nation."

The district also received several calls from people regarding the song and its inclusion in the concert, officials said. This raised concerns about potential disruptions at the show.

School Board President Troy Wright called the decision a "lose-lose situation" and said parents were threatening to pull their children from the concert over the song.

"We can't make everyone happy," Wright told the newspaper. "We have to do the balancing act between who supports it and who doesn't support it, and our job is trying to find the balance between it."

The decision to cut the song was made by District Superintendent Betsy Baker and Middle School Principal Amy Miller. Baker said "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was one of many songs selected for the chorus by the music teachers who "picked songs that they felt were appropriate." Because the chorus practiced other songs, one of those was picked to fill the slot.

"We wanted everyone to feel comfortable," Baker told the newspaper, saying the decision to cut the song was "clearly a divisive issue here" and stressing that race had nothing to do with the decision.

"There was no right decision, but we focused on letting all of the kids participate in the concert," Baker said.

Stephen Hershberger, whose son was among the students performing in the chorus concert, was among residents who criticized the decision.

"Cutting the song just sends the message that a few individuals' discomfort outweighs the perspective and care and concern of minority students and others who don't have the same beliefs as them," Hershberger told the newspaper.

The Blair County NAACP has said it executive board will proceed with a formal investigation into the district's decision, the newspaper reported.

What is the Black National Anthem? 

"Lift Every Voice and Sing," was originally written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, CBS News has previously reported. He wanted to write a poem to mark President Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and it became a song.

Johnson called the work a "National Hymn," and it was later popularized as the Black national anthem. It was first performed by a choir of 500 schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1900, according to CBS News. 

Andra Day recently performed it at the Super Bowl, and it was performed at three previous Super Bowls. 

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