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 20 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's commonly labeled the "African American 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. 20 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.
|Artist||Johnson, James Weldon and Johnson, J. Rosamond|
|Writer(s)||James Weldon Johnson (words), J. Rosamond Johnson (music)|
|Learn to play||Sheet Music|
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was influenced by the post-Reconstruction struggles of African Americans.
As the “African American National Anthem,” it has influenced generations of black Americans to fight for civil rights and political equality.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson (1912)
In this fictional autobiography, Johnson follows the intellectual and psychic trials of a young man of mixed race. While Johnson’s “Lift every Voice and Sing” is his most famous work, this book ranks as an important and early exploration of the challenges posed by racial identity.
Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the N**** National Anthem; 100 Years, 100 Voices, by Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson,eds. (2000)
Written for the centennial anniversary of the song, this book is not a scholarly exploration of the song’s history. Instead, it celebrates the song and its place within the 20th-century civil rights movement. Short essays from a wide range of contributors, including Maya Angelou, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell, make this a multi-voiced and inspirational read.
Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift, by Jacqueline Moore (2003)
This book explores the competing approaches to “racial uplift” at the beginning of the 20th century. The ideas of both Du Bois and Washington are sympathetically explored and placed within their larger historical context.
James Weldon Johnson
The educator, writer, and activist who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
J. Rosamond Johnson
He composed the music for his brother’s poem.
Booker T. Washington
The young James Weldon Johnson adopted Washington’s philosophy of uplift.
W.E.B. Du Bois
James Weldon Johnson eventually joined Du Bois in his battle against racial injustice
James Weldon Johnson (at far right) was principal of the school from 1894 to 1902.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement (1987, 1990)
More than 20 years after its release, this fourteen-hour PBS documentary remains the most compelling and informative exploration of the modern civil rights movement. Interviews and news footage support a well-paced narrative that traces the major events within the movement from 1954 to 1985.
The Great White Hope (1970)
This film follows the career of Jack Johnson, the African American who held the heavyweight boxing championship from 1908 to 1915. It’s not directly about “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but it does reveal a great deal about the racial context in which James Weldon Johnson wrote the song, even if it does take place shortly after 1900.
Johnson Estate Website
This site, sponsored by the Grace and James Weldon Johnson estate, provides a short biography, a timeline, and other materials related to the life of the civil rights leader.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Ray Charles
Charles sings an upbeat R&B rendition of the anthem.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Chicago Children Choir
A traditional rendition sung by a choir much like the first to sing the song in 1900.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Barack Obama
The president joins in singing the African American anthem.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Melba Moore
The R&B artist recorded this rendition in 1990.