James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while teaching in Jacksonville, Florida, but the song’s more important setting is historical, rather than geographical. The song was composed as African American leaders began to debate a shift in tactics, at a time when the accommodationist strategies of the late 19th century were being questioned.
During the last decades of the 19th century, black leaders embraced a patient strategy of racial uplift. Articulated most fully by Booker T. Washington, this strategy placed economic and social advancement over political and civil rights. Believing that full rights of citizenship would be won after African Americans earned the respect of whites, leaders urged their followers to learn trades, acquire property, and lead sober, middle-class lives.
This strategy won the support of white Americans. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie supported leaders like Washington; President Theodore Roosevelt even invited the black educator and philosopher to a White House dinner in 1901. Despite this, many black leaders began to question this strategy. They argued that this accommodationist approach would only fix African Americans within a second-class status. They argued that a recent Supreme Court decision provided evidence: in 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled state laws that required the separation of black and white train patrons was constitutional so long as the facilities provided for the two races were equal. Black leaders recognized that the resulting doctrine of “separate but equal” would lead to the legal segregation of African Americans into separate institutions, including schools.
The case, Plessy v. Ferguson, led to the multiplication of segregation laws in the South. However, it also inspired a new generation of black leaders to consider new strategies to combat racial injustice. In 1905, a group that included W.E.B. Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement to discuss these strategies, and this led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Rejecting the patient, accommodationist strategies of Booker T. Washington, the NAACP launched a legal attack on segregation. They enlisted lawyers to confront “separate but Equal” in the courts, paying particular attention to the impact of the doctrine on education. The Johnson brothers could not have known exactly where the Civil Rights battle was headed when they wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900, but they were well positioned to write a song that was passionate and well-suited for the coming struggles.