In 1899, amid segregation and a Jim Crow reign of terror, James Weldon Johnson, a young poet, lawyer and school principal from Jacksonville, Fla., was asked to speak at an event commemorating the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. He was to prepare a speech. Instead, he decided to write a poem.
“My thoughts began buzzing round a central idea of writing a poem about Lincoln but I couldn’t net them,” he wrote in his autobiography, Along This Way. At the end of the day, Johnson decided to center his poem on Black struggle and defiance. He wept as he wrote the words that captured the suffering his ancestors had endured. “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so,” Johnson recounted in the book “Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora” by Shana L. Redmond.
Beginning with the powerful line: “Lift ev’ry voice and sing,” Johnson handed over the lyrics to his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who put the words to music. The following year, the song was first performed at Johnson’s school by a group of 500 children. The song then spread to other cities. “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,” Johnson said in 1935.
Not too long after, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was being sung at churches, graduation ceremonies, civic organization meetings, pageants and school assemblies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, within 20 years, adopted the hymn as its official song. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” would come to be known as the “Black national anthem.”
Three years ago when Beyoncé sang it at Coachella, many Black viewers said it brought them to tears as they recalled the years they sang the hymn in churches and schools as kids. To many who identified the significance of the song, Beyoncé’s performance was “a call to action”. Indeed, the music icon’s performance also introduced the song to many. That was in fact one of the aims of the writers of the song – that it did not only become a pillar of Black culture and a symbol of resistance but also to send a message to the White population.
As it turned out, many White observers who were not Christians even praised the hymn in the 1920s, with some suggesting that it be made a substitute for other national anthems at a time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not yet the official national anthem.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was sung during organizational meetings for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it in his speeches, and following his assassination, the hymn was sung by a crowd in Roxbury, Mass., where Reverend Virgil Wood reportedly declared, “We will not sing the anthem that has dishonored us, but we will sing the one that has honored us.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1972 became the anthem for Black students in Newark who protested over the lack of Black teachers and Black curriculum. In subsequent years, musicians including Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Kim Weston performed covers while Rev. Joseph Lowery quoted the song during President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The song has also been performed at protests across the country in recent years. Following the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting, protesters at Howard University prayed and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” NBA teams played the song at games during Black History Month. Following the police killing of George Floyd, it was performed at protests across the country. “When you play that song, people rise up and stand together and remember all that we have gone through,” said musician Jon Batiste. “It’s like saying, ‘If we can get through all of that, we can transcend even this moment of atrocity.”
That notwithstanding, the song’s labeling as a “Black national anthem” has led to some divisions within the Black community. A Fourth of July performance of the song by Vanessa Williams sparked controversy on social media this week. Some users called it “divisive,” while others were all for it. Timothy Askew, an associate professor of English at Clark Atlanta University, recently spoke against the song’s labeling as a “Black national anthem”.
“To sing the ‘black national anthem’ suggests that black people are separatist and want to have their own nation,” Askew told CNN. “This means that everything Martin Luther King Jr. believed about being one nation gets thrown out the window.”
Irrespective of the controversy that has erupted over the hymn, one cannot deny its impact on Black culture and life. It is the hope of many that the hymn continues to elevate Black pride while representing solidarity and defiance.
Read the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is still sung as a hymn in many Protestant denominations.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 ’til 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,
‘Til 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.