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‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: Whether anthem or hymn, song invokes pride

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Every morning, the kids at the Johnson Learning Center stand up and sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Andrew Young, some 70 years their senior, smiles at the image. It is the same thing he did as a child growing up in New Orleans. And just like the Johnson Learning Center kids, on cue, he can recite the whole song.

“It means quite a bit to me, because it is one of the defining articles of African-American history,” Young said. “It is what we grew up on. It is where my identity comes from.”

“Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

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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.”

James Weldon Johnson was an author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter and civil rights activist. In 1920 he became the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, serving until 1930.  Johnson was also a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, writing poems, novels, and anthologies. He wrote the lyrics to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," and the penned the classic novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” (James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, Emory University)

›Related video: Who was James Weldon Johnson

Composed more than a century ago, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” came along after Reconstruction, when a newly awakened black race was searching for an identity — just as Jim Crow was replacing slavery. So powerful is the song that it is often referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” although its composer referred to it simply as a hymn.

“Singing to God was an opportunity for African-Americans to share a proud history and hopeful perspective,” said Karen Lowery, daughter of civil rights icon Joseph Lowery and director of music and arts at Cascade United Methodist Church. “This song is also about love for our country and each other. When the music begins, and people stand together to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I experience both sadness and happiness. I feel an intense bond and a divine connection with voices present, past and future.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” (sometimes written as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”) was created as a poem in 1900 by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson for a program in Jacksonville, Fla. to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Noelle Morrissette, the author of “James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes,” and the editor of two other books on Johnson’s life, said Johnson was originally invited to speak at the event but felt a more lyrical inspiration that became the song.

His younger brother John Rosamond Johnson set the poem to music and on Feb. 12, 1900, 500 schoolchildren performed it for the first time.

“I could not keep back the tears,” Johnson wrote about the performance. “And made no effort to do so.”

Soon, as the song’s lyrics and music were pasted on the backs of hymnals and Sunday school songbooks across the South, church and HBCU choirs started singing it.

As early as 1920 — after the NAACP adopted it as its official song — people were referring to it as the “Negro National Anthem.”

Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, said black educators in the ’20s and ’30s wrote curricula based on the song. After Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926, the song became a staple of the celebration that would eventually become Black History Month.

In Perry’s forthcoming book, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem,” which comes out on Feb. 19, she writes that based on the records of black schools, civic and political institutions, as well as memoirs, oral histories, literature, newspapers and theater, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was used much more broadly than most anthems.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” didn’t officially become America’s national anthem until 1931.

Imani Perry’s latest book, “ May We Forever Stand,” explores the history of Johnsons classic.

“It was literally a part of the daily or weekly practice of African Americans, particularly those in the South,” Perry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was so deeply cherished that it was embraced by people with dramatically different political philosophies: integrationists and black nationalists, as well as patriots and radical leftists.”

“Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being part creator of this song,” Johnson wrote in his 1933 autobiography. “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. My brother and I, in talking, have often marveled at the results that have followed what we considered an incidental effort…we wrote better than we knew.”

“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.”

But the song is not without controversy. In 2008, jazz singer Rene Marie was roundly criticized for singing the lyrics of the song to the tune of the country’s official national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Indeed, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — the history of its performances, the contexts in which it has been sung and in which it has been received — carries us directly to Colin Kaepernick’s protest over the national anthem,” Morrissette said. “Is there space in American culture for dissenting black voices? Are black citizens permitted to love their nation and criticize it?”

Tim Askew, a professor of English and humanities at Clark Atlanta University – Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894 – said the song is too big to just belong to African-Americans. An argument that has put him at odds with other scholars, whom he said have called him “everything under the sun.”

“People all over the world are singing this song to speak of a desire for social justice and inclusion,” said Askew, the author of “Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’” “It is troublesome to say we need a black national anthem in 2018. We need to be moving toward racial cohesiveness, diversity, universal understanding and universal respect.”

Young said while he agrees that the song holds universal appeal, the fact that it is considered a black hymn allows it to maintain its power and spirituality, while uplifting a race.

“I think it will maintain its relevance and meaning and it will continue to be important. In fact, I think it is much more powerful and religious than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Young said. “There are parts of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that are very problematic. But “Lift Every Voice,” gets better and more powerful on every verse.”

For his part, Princeton’s Perry said Johnson resisted the label anthem, recognizing that there was only one national anthem: Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, of Atlanta, gives the benediction during the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In his prayer, he quoted, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Alex Wong / Pool / MCT)

Instead, he referred to it as a hymn, while acknowledging that it was a great source of racial pride.

Perhaps never moreso than in 2009, when Rev. Lowery delivered the benediction at the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. Instead of beginning his prayer with a Bible verse, he picked his own expression of racial pride, the third stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“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.”

A mass formation of the bands plays Lift Every Voice and Sing, just before playing the National Anthem during the 11th Honda Battle of the Bands in the Georgia Dome Saturday, January 26 2013. Featured Bands: Albany State, Alcorn State, Bethune-Cookman College, Edward Waters College, Jackson State, North Carolina A&T, Tennessee State and Winston-Salem State. (Kent D. Johnson / kdjohnson@ajc.com)

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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