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Intro

In a Nutshell

In 1900, two brothers, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote a song for a community celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. First sung by the school children of Jacksonville, Florida, the song spread to black communities across America. Within twenty years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had become a symbol of African American unity. In 1919, it was adopted as the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and today it is commonly labeled the “Black National Anthem.”

Through their words and music, the Johnson brothers managed to connect African Americans across the nation, but the brothers also built a bridge of a different sort. When he wrote the lyrics, James Weldon Johnson was a disciple of Booker T. Washington, a leader who argued that blacks should be patient in their pursuit of political rights. He preached that they should acquire trades, work hard, and earn the respect of white Americans, and their political rights would follow. Twenty years later, Johnson was the executive secretary of the NAACP, an organization founded by W.E.B. Du Bois that rejected the patient, accommodationist strategies of Washington and argued that blacks should fight for their civil and political rights in the courts.

To a certain extent, Johnson’s views had evolved, but upon close inspection of his song, it becomes clear that, as early as 1900, Johnson’s racial vision combined both patience and anger. While during these years many African Americans fell into the camps of either Washington or Du Bois, Johnson was looking for a way to combine the best of both visions.

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Album
Year1900
Label
Writer(s)James Weldon Johnson (words), J. Rosamond Johnson (music)
Producer(s)
Learn to play: http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtdFPE.asp?ppn=MN0059628
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often called the “African American National Anthem.” Written in 1900 and still sung today, the song has been an inspirational part of the modern civil rights movement. Fittingly, the song’s history reflects the diversity within that movement. It was written by the principal of a black school founded during Reconstruction. This man was a disciple of Booker T. Washington and his philosophy of self help, but 20 years later, the song was adopted as the official song of the NAACP as the organization embraced a more confrontational approach to civil rights. Integrationists have found meaning in the song, but so too have black nationalists like Marcus Garvey.

The story surrounding the song involves more than just politics, though. The brothers who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson, were important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, a movement centered in 1920s New York that aimed to develop the distinctive voices and styles of black writers, artists, and musicians.

On the Charts

While “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has remained extremely popular since it was first written in 1900, the original version of the song predates modern music charting by several decades.
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