A brief history of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

Writer and educator James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

By Saeed Ahmed

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not so much a song as a hymn — a call to action that honors African Americans’ long, painful struggle for freedom and affirms their rightful place in our national identity.

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us.

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Like “America the Beautiful,” it’s about the promise this nation holds for all its citizens. And like the resilience it celebrates, it’s now a deeply rooted part of African American culture — some 120 years after it was written.

As America continues its reckoning with systemic racism, the NFL has announced it will play the song before every game in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.

How the song came about: The song was written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, who had been tasked with delivering an address to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday the following year. He began prepping for it, but as he writes in his autobiography, “I wanted something else also.”

He took his words to his younger brother, a classically trained composer named J. Rosamond Johnson, and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (as it is accurately titled) was born.

For Johnson, writing the lyrics was an emotional experience. “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so,” he wrote.

Where it was first performed: At the time, Johnson was the principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where the hymn debuted the following year, sung by 500 children at an event celebrating Black history.

It caught on immediately and was performed at churches and school assemblies.
“Recently I spoke for the summer labor school at Bryn Mawr College,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography, “and was surprised to hear it fervently sung by the white students there and to see it in their mimeographed folio of songs.”
Later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted it as its official song.

“During the Jazz Age, the Swing Era, World War II and the early Cold War years, dynamic new styles of African American popular song emerged, but ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ continued to be both a sentimental and a dignified favorite of black communities,” wrote Burton Peretti in his book, “Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music.”

It was sung to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, and at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Beyonce sang a 90-second snippet when she became the first black woman to headline Coachella.
Why it still resonates so deeply: Scholar Rudolph P. Byrd put it best in a piece for CNN.

“While there is no specific reference to African-Americans in the hymn,” he wrote, “the genesis and context make it impossible to ignore the centrality of the history of African-Americans and their heroic movement from slavery to freedom in a democratic republic that for centuries countenanced the contradiction of slavery, and later, segregation, to the hymn’s inspiration and composition.”

Here are the full lyrics:

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.


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