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History of Lift Every Voice and Sing

In 1900 James Weldon Johnson, author, composer, and a pioneering leader in the modern civil rights movement, composed with his younger brother J. Rosamond Johnson, a classically trained composer and singer, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This hymn was composed for a program sponsored by the African American leadership of Jacksonville, Florida, the birthplace of the Johnson brothers, to commemorate the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. At the time of its composition, James Weldon Johnson was principal of Stanton School, the only middle school in Florida for African Americans and his alma mater. The elder Johnson wrote the words of the hymn, and the younger Johnson, as his older brother remembers, created “the noble setting of the poem.”

James Weldon Johnson (back) and his brother John Rosamond, updated and photographed by ASCAP. James Weldon Johnson papers, Manuscript Archives, and Rare Book Library, Robert W. Woodruff, Emory University. 0797-004.tif

As James Weldon Johnson recalls in his autobiography Along This Way (1933), the process of composition was filled with the mystery, effort, and ecstasy of creating an original work of art. “I got my first line:‐‐Lift ev’ry voice and sing,” remembers Johnson. “Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines: 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.” The “spirit of the poem had taken hold of me,” remembers Johnson, “and I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond.”

As the brothers collaborated in the composition of the hymn, James abandoned the use of pen and paper. “While my brother worked at the musical setting,” writes Johnson, “I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating… I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transport of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by the contentment—the sense of serene joy—which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.”

For the debut performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Johnson brothers arranged to have the hymn sung by Jacksonville’s schoolchildren: “a chorus of five hundred voices.” After the Johnson brothers permanently moved away from Jacksonville, both the song and the occasion passed out of their minds. “But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing the song,” writes James Weldon Johnson, “some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some of them became school teachers and taught it to their pupils. Within twenty years the song was being sung in schools and churches and on special occasions throughout the South and in some other parts of the country.”

Courtesy of Randall Burkett

“Nothing that I have done,” writes James Weldon Johnson, “has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being part creator of this song. I am always thrilled deeply when I hear it sung by Negro children. I am lifted up on their voices, and I am also carried back and enabled to live through again the exquisite emotions I felt at the birth of the song.” Reflecting further upon his historic collaboration, Johnson writes that he and his brother Rosamond “have often marveled at the results that have followed what we considered an incidental effort, an effort made under stress and with no intention other than to meet the needs of a particular moment. The only comment we can make is that we wrote better than we knew.”

In late 1921, three men met to explore the possibility of adopting an organizational song for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These three men—Chairman of the NAACP Board Joel E. Spingarn, Harry Pace, founder of the first Black‐owned recording company Black Swan, and James Weldon Johnson—ultimately decided that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” best represented the aspirations of the interracial organization, and, therefore, should be the song of the growing NAACP. While the committee labeled “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the “official song of the NAACP,” others within the organization argued that it was a national anthem. NAACP member Rabbi Stephen Wise was so impressed by the song on a trip to Atlanta that he sent a letter of support to the publishers of the song, Edward B. Marks Music Company. In it, he wrote that “[t]he ‘National Anthem’ by J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson, text and music alike, is the noblest anthem I have ever heard. It is a great upwelling of prayer from the soul of a race long wronged but with faith unbroken. I wish that ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ might be substituted for some of the purely martial and unspiritual so‐called national anthems which are sung by the peoples.” Early NAACP supporter and board member Mary White Ovington (1932) similarly believed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a “noble national anthem” with “nothing in it that is not suitable to many groups in the nation.”

Neither James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson nor the NAACP officially described “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a national anthem, although many who heard and sung it in the United States and beyond supported its placement within that category of songs. The Johnson brothers were keenly aware that Frances Scott Keys’ “The Star‐Spangled Banner” was widely sung by Americans as the national anthem. Lawyer, author, amateur poet, and the son of slaveholders, Keys was born in 1779 at Terra Rubra, the family plantation, in Carroll County, Maryland. In honor of the bravery of American troops at Fort McHenry under attack by the British Navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, Keys composed the poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which was published on September 20, 1814 in Patriot. Shortly after its publication, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was widely sung by Americans as the national anthem. Through an executive order in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson adopted Keys’ poem as the national anthem. Congress, through a congressional resolution, and President Herbert Hoover, who signed it, authorized the adoption of Keys’ “The Star‐Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1931. Aware of the place of Keys’ “The Star‐Spangled Banner” in the national imagination even before the actions taken by Presidents Wilson and Hoover, the Johnson brothers referred to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a hymn, not an anthem. Of course, they had no control over how their composition would be used and interpreted by those who sang it. Like any work of art, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once entering the public sphere, was claimed and used by many different constituencies for different purposes.

Individuals and organizations around the world sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at events ranging from festivities to protests, and used their own languages to express the universal sentiments represented within the hymn. In 1930, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was sung in the native language of Ovimbundu at an event in Galangue, Angola, which celebrated fifty years of foreign religious missions. In 1936, the song was published in Japanese in Ongaku Sekai (Music World). The accompanying article by Yonezo Hirayama described that, “When Negroes sing this National Anthem, [they] are in a trance, and are dreaming of a free country … they truly find solace in the song.” The international use of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in Angola, Japan, and elsewhere, was made possible by its performance in the U.S. South. The song circulated within black communities for decades before its adoption by the NAACP. Black teachers, especially black women, played an important role in the spread of the song from Jacksonville to other locations in the South. In 1934, Mrs. Effie T. Battle wrote to James Weldon Johnson that she was responsible for teaching the “Negro National Anthem to thousands of Negro children in Dixie.” Regular performances of the song in schools, churches, and community organizations helped to make it possible for the New York City‐based NAACP to gain a reputation in the South prior to the establishment of local branches. The NAACP soon achieved a place of prominence within local and national struggles for civil rights, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was the song that moved the NAACP membership and announced the organization’s campaign for equality and justice on both a national and global scale.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a hymn that captures the noble struggle of African Americans to realize the full promise of American democracy through centuries of slavery, racial violence, and racial segregation. Written four years after the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 which legalized segregation in American public life, in its faith and optimism the hymn also looks ahead to the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and thus prepared the way for the eradication of all forms of discrimination based upon race. Above all, the hymn captures the enduring faith of African Americans in the possibilities of American democracy.

Billye and Hank Aaron speak for many African Americans when they observe that “’Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has kept us grounded—connected to our yesterday, mindful of our today, and hopeful for our tomorrow.” “Of all the things that Johnson did with his illustrious life,” observes the writer Alice Walker, “none is more telling than that he and his brother crafted this song and gave it to the African American people. Out of sheer love. It is a song that knows and cherishes our beauty, our dignity, and our soul. This is high art, and it is also how African Americans perceived that art. Something useful and above all, moving, to the spirit.” In her tribute to the Johnson brothers, the educator Johnnetta B. Cole challenges all Americans to realize the vision of America celebrated in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: “As we move now into a new millennium, let us lift our voices not only in song, but in calling for a new day for our people. And let us rededicate our energies to creating the kind of nation that James Weldon Johnson longed for and deserved.” And like Johnnetta B. Cole, President Bill Clinton expresses the hope that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” imparts to all Americans after more than a century since its composition: “In this new century, our nation also faces an even more basic test. That challenge is for the people of our great nation to appreciate our differences while affirming our common humanity. We must find ways to respect and understand what defines each of us as individuals and not hold to the belief that our own worth increases only when someone else’s is diminished. We all have the goodness within us to reach these goals, and I know that there will be a day when we achieve them. But until that day arrives our journey will not be finished, and until then, ‘Let us march on till victory is won.’” The testimony of these Americans speaks to the enduring significance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The Johnson brothers wrote better than they knew.

Rudolph P. Byrd is the Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and Founding Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute of Emory University

Shana Redmond is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Visiting Scholar at the James Weldon Johnson Institute of Emory University