Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing


An American Boomer growing up during the mid-20th century learned many patriotic songs. The National Anthem. God Bless American. America the Beautiful.


Each song praised the United States’ goodness and godliness. Boomers were proud of their country, but like any country’s story, books often left out the discomforting  pieces.


Text certainly included slavery and that Lincoln ended it, but often,  that was that.  Curricula rarely mentioned the continued vicious mistreatment and terrorism that followed emancipation at the end of the Civil War.


In 1900, James Weldon Johnson, born in the 19th century, wrote a poem. Here is some of its history that I didn’t learn until the 21st century.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing
James Weldon and John Rosamond Jonnson
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” poem

February 12, 1900: as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, 500 school children at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida recited “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by their school principal, James Weldon Johnson.  He wrote the words as an introduction to that day’s honored guest: Booker T. Washington. 


Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring.

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.

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.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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
Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” song



In 1905, James’s brother John Rosamond put music to the poem.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” anthem


In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed it “The Negro National Anthem” for its power in voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people. 

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

James W Johnson dies


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing


June 26, 1938: James Weldon Johnson died while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine. The car his wife, Grace, was driving was hit by a train. She survived.


Johnson’s funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people. His ashes are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” sculpture

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

 


In 1939 the New York World’s Fair commissioned Augusta Savage to create a sculpture. She made a 16-foot plaster sculpture called Lift Every Voice and Sing. The piece was was destroyed at the close of the Fair. (see Savage for her expanded story) 


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

John Rosamond Johnson dies

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing
photo credit: Carl Van Vechten

November 11, 1954: John Rosamond Johnson died.  A Black Past article stated that, “He was a renowned performer and made his acting debut in the first African American show on Broadway, John W. Isham’s Oriental America (1897). He eventually secured leading roles in Porgy and Bess (1935), Mamba’s Daughters (1939), and Cabin in the Sky (1940).


“One of Johnson’s major accomplishments was the 1918 founding of his school in Harlem called the New York Music School Settlement for Colored People. Atlanta University awarded him an honorary master’s degree in 1917 and he was made a subchief of the Iroquois in honor of his stage musical Red Moon (1908) and its respectful portrayal of Native Americans. He was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers for most of his career.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing


In 1969: Maya Angelou’s published her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In it, she relats the story of her 8th grade graduation when class and audience sang the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” anthem  after a white school official spoke in a derogatory manner about the educational aspirations of her class. 


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

Star Spangled Banner/Lift Every Voice



In 2008,  Rene Marie performed the national anthem at a civic event in Denver, Colorado, where she caused a controversy by substituting the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into the melody.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

Barak Obama’s inauguration


January 20, 2009, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was formerly president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used a near-verbatim recitation of the song’s third stanza to begin his benediction at the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

 National Museum of African American History and Culture



September 24, 2016, this song was sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and chorus at the conclusion of the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, at which Obama delivered the keynote address.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing

White nationalist Richard Spencer

October 19, 2017, when white nationalist leader Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida, the university’s carillon played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to convey a message of unity.


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing
Winston-Salem State University Choir, Alumni Choir and Friends
First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, NC 3/26/17

  • Dr. Roland M. Carter, conductor
  • Maestra D’Walla Simmons-Burke, conductor
  • Dr. Myron Brown, accompanist 


Johnson Brothers Lift Every Voice Sing


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