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Trevor Phillips slams plan to cancel England rugby anthem ‘made popular by African American singers’

Trevor Phillips slammed the RFU plan to ban the song. Pictured here in 2017

A former head of the Commission for Racial Equality has slammed plans to ban ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ – describing it as ‘Black people’s own culture being cancelled’.

Trevor Phillips, 66, condemned the Rugby Football Union for reviewing the popular sporting song, which rings through the stands at Twickenham, over its ties to the slave trade.

He pointed out the last people to try and ban it were Hitler and the Nazis back in 1939.

Mr Phillips, who is a passionate free speech campaigner and current chair of Index on Censorship, said the song had been written by a freed slave. 

Former racial equalities chief Mr Phillips has blasted plans to ban the song on Twitter this morning

Former racial equalities chief Mr Phillips has blasted plans to ban the song on Twitter this morning

He wrote: ‘So “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, celebrating the Underground Railway, written AFTER the Civil War by a freed slave, made popular by the African American Fisk Jubilee Singers, sung at many black funerals and civil rights demonstrations, honoured by Congress, now to be banned. 

‘It was a favourite of Paul Robeson, of Louis Armstrong and of Martin Luther King. The last attempt to ban the song was in 1939, in Germany.

‘So black people’s own culture is also now to be cancelled. Please everyone, take a breath before you eliminate black lives from history.

‘This is a proposal being considered by the game’s official governing body, the Rugby Football Union.’

He was backed by John Pienaar, former deputy political editor of BBC News, who retweeted the comments.

Fans have also hit out at the proposals, describing them as political correctness gone mad.

One said: ‘I was not aware of the links to slavery of the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. 

‘I hope they do not stop singing it due to political correctness’.

It was revealed yesterday England rugby supporters could soon be banned from singing it at matches because of the song’s ties with slavery.

Former player Maggie Alphonsi admitted fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot did not ‘sit easy’ with her – but said she would not call for it to be banned.

The iconic anthem which rings round the stands at Twickenham is being reviewed by the RFU, which has launched a wide-ranging probe into racism.

It said it wanted fans to be aware of its origins, but this morning refused to elaborate on how this could happen.

Lyrics to the song are on the walls at Twickenham, so it was unclear if plaques would be put up explaining its origin or mentions on their website. 

Swing Low was written by a black slave in the American South during the nineteenth century, the song was first belted out by supporters when two black wingers – Martin Offiah and Chris Oti – became sporting heroes on the pitch at the end of the 1980s.

The RFU said it was determined to ‘accelerate change and grow awareness’, but acknowledged how much of a battle cry the song is among passionate fans.

A spokesperson said: ‘The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or its sensitivities.

‘We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.’

Martin Offiah (pictured playing Australia in 1995) was on the pitch when Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was first heard sung by fans in 1987

Martin Offiah (pictured playing Australia in 1995) was on the pitch when Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was first heard sung by fans in 1987

England winger Chris Oti, races away during a match against Romania in 1989. Footage shows fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot during his time with the team

England winger Chris Oti, races away during a match against Romania in 1989. Footage shows fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot during his time with the team

One of the game's biggest stars Maro Itoje has already expressed doubts about the anthem. In an exclusive interview with Sportsmail this week, he said: 'I don't think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent, but the background of that song is complicated'

One of the game’s biggest stars Maro Itoje has already expressed doubts about the anthem. In an exclusive interview with Sportsmail this week, he said: ‘I don’t think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent, but the background of that song is complicated’ 

SONG LYRICS 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

 

I looked over Jordan

And what did I see

Coming for to carry me home

A band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, has become synonymous with English rugby – Twickenham itself is plastered with lyrics of the song, including the marketing mantra ‘Carry Them Home’.

The song has often been covered and released as an official England World Cup song in the past.  

It is thought to have been written by Wallace Willis, a Native American who before the Civil War was a slave in the Deep South.   

A minister transcribed the words he heard Wallis singing and the African American group, The Jubilee Singers, popularised it as they toured around America, the United Kingdom and Europe in the early 20th century. 

But it only became a mainstay among supporters in the late 1980s when wingers Offiah and Oti became firm fan favourites. 

Offiah was nicknamed Chariots Offiah, a nod to the film Chariots of Fire, in reference to his lightening speed. 

Phil McGowan, of the World Rugby Museum believes Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, was first used in 1987 while Offiah was playing as a nod to this nickname. 

The footage of the song being sung during Offiah’s performances was only unearthed earlier this year.

Before that, conventional wisdom suggested the anthem spawned among England fans a year later in 1988, when Oti crossed the whitewash three times for a hatrick. 

Mr McGowan told the BBC the footage of Offiah ‘solved the mystery of why on earth were they were singing this song’.

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, USA on a visit to England where they where invited to give a concert before Queen Victoria

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, USA on a visit to England where they where invited to give a concert before Queen Victoria 

The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests have put elements of Britain’s chequered history under the microscope – and sparked calls to stamp out glorification of the colonial era’s darker periods.    

One of the game’s biggest stars Maro Itoje has already expressed doubts about the anthem.

In an exclusive interview with Sportsmail this week, he said: ‘I don’t think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent, but the background of that song is complicated.’ 

As part of the review into how rugby can put an end to institutional racism and be more inclusive the RFU council has appointed Genevieve Glover as chair of a diversity working group. 

Meanwhile the boss of the French Top14 league has not ruled out clubs in France and England taking legal action if international stakeholders force them to move their competitions to the summer.

Paul Goze was livid with the provisional plan presented to the clubs by unions on Monday.

‘The way the talks during Monday’s meeting were carried out leads us to anticipate a decision which would not take into account what’s at stake for professional clubs,’ he said.

‘We must prepare to take all measures to protect these interests, in France and in England.’

England’s rugby anthem: The history of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

The song is believed to have first been written by a slave called Wallace Willis in Oklahoma, around 1865.  

A minister transcribed the words he heard Willis singing and the African American group The Jubilee Singers popularised it as they toured around America, the United Kingdom and Europe in the early 20th century.

In 1939, during the second World War, the song was branded ‘undesired and harmful’ by the Nazis.

It had a resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America – folk singer Joan Baez lays claim to the most notable version from that era, when she performed it at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.

But it only became a mainstay among supporters in the late 1980s when wingers Offiah and Oti became firm fan favourites. 

Offiah was nicknamed Chariots Offiah, a nod to the film Chariots of Fire, in reference to his lightening speed. 

Phil McGowan, of the World Rugby Museum believes Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, was first used in 1987 while Offiah was playing as a nod to this nickname. 

The footage of the song being sung during Offiah’s performances was only unearthed earlier this year.

Before that, conventional wisdom suggested the anthem spawned among England fans a year later in 1988, when Oti crossed the whitewash three times for a hatrick. 

Mr McGowan told the BBC the footage of Offiah ‘solved the mystery of why on earth were they were singing this song’.

In 2011, Judy Eason McIntyre, state senator for Oklahoma, proposed that the song became the Oklahoma State official gospel song and it was signed into law in May of that year.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk



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