The Harlem Renaissance inspired creative expression throughout the African-American diaspora in the early 1900s. Dance! Theater! Music! Art! Writing! Creativity exploded with the powerful voice of the once silenced.
Two brothers from Jacksonville, Florida followed their dreams during this period that saw both pride in the black community and an increase in Jim Crow laws and lynchings at the hands of white terrorists. In this context, the talented brothers gave the world the song that would become known as the Black National Anthem, “LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING.”
Big brother James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) seemed able to do everything. After securing his education at Atlanta University and Columbia, he became an accomplished poet and writer, author of God’s Trombones and other works. He served as a school principal, university professor, first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar, and U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, appointed by Teddy Roosevelt. In 1917, Johnson organized the memorable “Silent March” through the streets of NYC to protest lynchings and served as head of the NAACP in the 1920s. At his death, thousands of mourners filled the streets of Harlem.
THE BLACK NATIONAL ANTHEM
In 1900, Johnson penned the words of this hymn as a poem for a school celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It is said that he wept profusely and paced on his front porch as he wrote the words.
His poem became a song after he teamed up with his younger brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). Growing up, they had attended the Zion Episcopal Methodist Church (later renamed Ebenezer UMC) where their mother was the choir director. A school teacher, she had taught her sons music and reading at home. The brothers would go on to collaborate on dozens of songs, living together in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. They wrote for the musical theater and Broadway stage. They also compiled two books of American Negro spirituals.
After Rosamond composed the stirring music for “Lift Every Voice,” it was sung for the first time by 500 schoolchildren on Feb. 12, 1900. After that, the song, a hymn, took on a life of its own. It was adopted as a National Anthem by the NAACP and sung to sustain the courage of activists throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1972, following an impassioned speech by Rev. Jesse Jackson, an audience of 100,000 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, many with raised fists, stood for their anthem led by soul singer Kim Weston.
At President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery recited some of the lyrics as a benediction. By that time, the song could be found in the hymnals of many denominations.
In 2012, students converged around the flagpole at the center of the Howard University campus to sing the anthem in protest of the shooting of young Trayvon Martin.
In 2018, artist-activist Beyoncé breathed new life into the anthem when she sang several lines of it in front of tens of thousands, as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Festival in Indio, California. Woven into her rendition were stomps and screams. The performance reverberated across the landscape of social media. In an interview, Beyoncé said: “I know that most of the young people on the stage and in the audience did not know the history of the black national anthem before Coachella. But they understood the feeling it gave them… It was a celebration of all the people who sacrificed more than we could ever imagine, who moved the world forward so that it could welcome a woman of color to headline such a festival.”
It is said that Americans have short memories. James Weldon Johnson’s words call us to remember. Here is the unsparing truth about the gloomy past with its “chastening rod” and “blood of the slaughtered.” Here is a warning not to forget the sighs and dreams of the ancestors. Here, too, is the God of our silent tears.
It is in our remembering that we lift every voice to sing a new song, confronting the challenges of the present day with all the hope we can muster, “facing the rising sun of our new day begun.”
TO GO DEEPER
Book: May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem by Imani Perry, (University of North Carolina Press, 2018)