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Meaning

“Life Every Voice and Sing” was written by a school principal and first performed by 500 children in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1900. Though unveiled as part of a community celebration in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the song quickly spread outside the community of Jacksonville. Within a decade, black school children across America were singing the song, and in 1919, the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song. Today, the song is frequently described as the “African American National Anthem.”

James Weldon Johnson was 29 years old and the principal of Stanton School when he was asked to prepare something for the Lincoln celebration. He first wrote a poem, but anxious to have a real impact, he asked his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, a trained composer, to set his words to music. It’s understandable that James would want to make a real impression, as he had grown up in Jacksonville and attended the Stanton School as a child. A local academic star, he had graduated at age sixteen and enrolled at Atlanta University. After taking his degree, he returned to Jacksonville and was named principal of his former school at the ripe old age of 23.

Johnson would serve as principal until 1902. During those years, he also founded a newspaper, the Daily American, and studied law. In 1897, Johnson had become the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. After leaving Stanton School, he would go on an equally diverse and impressive career. He worked as a professional songwriter briefly in New York. He spent eight years as a diplomat under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, serving in Venezuela and Nicaragua. He published several books and a collection of poetry. And in 1916 he took a position on the staff of the NAACP that would lead to his selection as executive secretary in 1920.

Yet for all Johnson’s contributions, his most widely celebrated work is “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And rather poetically, the song reflects his own evolution as a black activist. Johnson started out a disciple of Booker T. Washington. He embraced the educator-activist’s philosophy of self-help. Washington had urged African Americans to put questions about politics and civil rights on the backburner. Instead, he felt, they should focus on advancing themselves economically and professionally. If they secured an education, held steady jobs, owned property, and led conventional middle-class lives, white Americans would learn to respect them, and civil and political rights would follow.

To advance this philosophy, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, a college with a vocational emphasis for African Americans. With the support of white industrialist Andrew Carnegie, he also started the National Negro Business League to help cultivate a black business sector. James Weldon Johnson embraced Washington’s philosophy, but he added a twist. Like Washington, he believed that blacks should place “uplift” and self-improvement before political goals, but he stressed the development and promotion of black artists and writers. Through the production of art and literature, African Americans would prove the value of their contributions to American life.

Booker T. Washington was the prominent black leader through the turn of the century, but in the early decades of the 20th century, a different set of leaders with a different philosophy emerged. Men like W.E.B. Dubois challenged the philosophy of uplift and its underlying strategy of patient self-improvement. They argued that African Americans should confront, rather than accommodate, racism and segregation. These more combative leaders formed the Niagara Movement in 1905 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Rejecting Washington’s patient strategy of uplift, the NAACP turned to the courts and launched a multi-pronged legal assault on the Jim Crow laws that divided Americans by race.

James Weldon Johnson never abandoned Washington’s philosophy of uplift. He continued to promote black writers and artists as a means of improving the place of African Americans in American society. But he also recognized the need for more confrontational tactics. In 1916, he accepted an appointment as field secretary for the NAACP, and in 1920, he was named its executive secretary. Nor did he shy from militant confrontation in these roles. As field secretary, he helped organize massive demonstrations against lynching. In the largest, more than 10,000 people marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue. As executive secretary, he relentlessly lobbied congress for an anti-lynching bill.

It would be tempting to argue that Johnson’s political views changed over time—that as the century progressed he grew more convinced of the need to embrace more militant tactics—, but a review of his most famous work, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” suggests that this interpretation would be wrong. He seems to have always coupled his self-help philosophy to recognition that more confrontational tactics might be necessary.

In the song’s first verse, Johnson urged his chorus to sing a joyful song of hope and faith; African Americans should rejoice as a “new day” was dawning. In the second verse, though, this all-positive tone was traded for a bitter reflection on American history. While not mentioning slavery specifically, he calls all to remember that “stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod.” Blacks may have been marching toward a new day, but the path had led “through the blood of the slaughtered.” And while there was hope for the future—“now we stand at last where the white gleam of our star is cast”—it was not yet time to relax. There was more work left to do, more battles to be fought. Therefore, he urged, “Let us march on till victory is won.”

There’s a bit of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and it’s entirely possible that the song has remained popular for over a century because it speaks to people advocating different approaches and methods. Steeped in religion, the song is a demand for faith. Aware of history, it invokes images of the past while at the same time acknowledging signs of progress. “Lift every Voice and Sing” survives as an anthem because it conjures up the right mix of emotion. It suggests that people should be joyful and angry, grateful for the change that has already occurred, yet mindful that the struggle is not over yet.
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