The year was 1900 and the annual celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 was being planned in Jacksonville, Florida. Carter J. Woodson, recognized as the father of black History, chose the second week of February for the first week-long celebration in 1926 because it marked the birthdays of two important men: Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and civil rights leader, and Lincoln, signer of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Who else to ask for assistance with the special program, but one of the most prominent educators in the city? James Weldon Johnson, principal of the distinguished (and segregated) Stanton School, was just the man for the occasion.
At 28, Johnson’s credentials were impressive. A graduate and class valedictorian from Atlanta University, he passed the Florida bar — the first African American in the state to do so since Reconstruction — and started an afternoon newspaper, The Daily American.
While principal at Stanton High School, he expanded its offerings to include eighth grade through high school, making it the first public high school for black Americans in Florida. Coming full circle, Johnson had attended the school while his mother was a teacher there — at the time, the only black American female teacher in the city.
While Johnson originally offered to write a poem for Lincoln’s Birthday celebration, he then decided a song would be better, asking his younger brother — musician J. Rosamond Johnson — to set his words to music. While the city prepared to celebrate the 91st anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, the Johnson brothers worked. James paced and agonized over the words while Rosamond composed at the piano.
As Johnson would later recall, the first line, “Lift ev’ry voice and sing,” came easily. After that, he set to work finishing the stanza. When the next lines came to him, he realized “the spirit of the poem had taken hold of me.”
Johnson gave Rosamond the first stanza, then went outside to the porch: “While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all the agony and ecstasy of creating.”
When the piece was finally completed, a choir of 500 black American schoolchildren sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the celebration of The Great Emancipator’s birthday. That performance was just the beginning.
Resounding Through Generations
Long popular in black churches, schools, and civic groups, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is now viewed by some as the black national anthem and is gaining national prominence.
In January, the NFL promoted its video of Alicia Keys performing the song before this year’s Super Bowl. It has been celebrated through the years by R&B artists like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, modern Gospel great Kirk Franklin, and even “Queen B” Beyoncé. Recently, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., introduced a bill to make it the official national hymn of the United States.
The hymn — now printed in more than 30 denominational hymnals — was a staple in the United Methodist Church pastored by Rev. Joseph Lowery. The civil rights hero prayed the third verse of the hymn he so loves at the swearing-in ceremony for President Barack Obama:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way. Thou who has by thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King, said he used the hymn in worship services for 25 years. “It had historicity; it had the religious context,” said Lowery “The black experience is sort of wrapped up in that hymn.”
Nationally renowned composer and musician Dr. Roland Carter, professor of American music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, recalls it was sung at the opening of every NAACP meeting and has directed several choral performances of his spirited arrangement of the song.
A Song of Hope
The song stirs deep emotions, with its evocative text and soaring musical line that reflects the Johnsons’ deep understanding and appreciation for black spirituals. Booker T. Washington endorsed it in 1905 and the NAACP adopted it as the “black national anthem” in 1919.
Imani Perry, who wrote a biography of the song, “May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem,” explains:
The song proved to be, both then and soon after, much bigger than an ode to any one leader or icon. It was a lament and encomium to the story and struggle of black people. The Johnsons at once wrote black history and wrote black people into the traditions of Western music with their noble song.
While never mentioning race, the song describes the hope of freedom while not glossing over the deep trials and pain of African American experience:
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;
Written during the highly segregated and dangerous years of Jim Crow in the deep South, the song hopes in God’s sheltering hand and trust in Him.
The Highlight of an Impressive Life
James Weldon Johnson’s love of language and the arts stayed with him as he and his brother left the South for New York in where they composed more than 200 musical theater songs for various productions. Ever political, as a founding member of the Colored Republican Club of New York, Johnson later wrote a spirited campaign song for presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt.
Showing the depth of his intelligence and interests, Johnson later became an active member of the NAACP. He translated Fernando Periquet’s grand opera “Goyescas” into English. In 1915, the Metropolitan Opera produced his libretto version.
While working for the NAACP, on July 28, 1917, Johnson organized a silent march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue of nearly 10,000 black Americans in opposition to lynching. The first protest of its kind, it set the stage for future civil rights demonstrations and, in 1920, for James Weldon Johnson to become the first black American to head the NAACP, a position he held for 10 years.
Over the years, the NAACP published Crisis magazine and several pamphlets, one featuring Johnson’s philosophy about living as a black man in a world that was still segregated:
I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.
Regardless of what life threw his way, Johnson always returned to his love of the arts, publishing the definitive “Book of American Negro Poetry” (1922), “The Book of American Negro Spirituals” (1925), and “The Second Book of Negro Spirituals” (1926). The following year, he wrote his book of poems, “God’s Trombones,” poetic sermons in the style of old country black preachers. Finally, he penned his autobiography, “Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson,” in 1933.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” had by then taken on a life of its own. Young children were deeply affected by the song and kept singing it in churches and schools throughout the South, as Johnson notes in his autobiography:
My brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York [in 1901], and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.
Although music publishers reissued the piece several times, Johnson most often found it typed or handwritten and pasted into the back of hymnals and songbooks used in Sunday schools, Y.M.C.A.’s, and similar institutions. “I think that this is the method by which it gets its widest circulation,” he wrote.
With a career that took him all over the world, Johnson cherished most the song he wrote to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in 1900. “The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children,” he wrote in 1935. “Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being part creator of this song.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing”
By James Weldon Johnson
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
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,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.