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While the message of “Lift every Voice and Sing” has drawn most attention to the song’s lyricist, James Weldon Johnson, music composer J. Rosamond Johnson is also an important figure in American history. Two years younger than his brother James, J. (John) demonstrated musical talent as a child and was sent to study at the New England Conservatory and under Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in London. Upon returning to the United States, he joined his brother in Jacksonville, where the pair produced their anthem.
While the song has been re-arranged to suit the style of different performers, the original arrangement coupled the ¾ beat of a waltz to the anthemic chords of 19th-century American hymns. Most of the music that Johnson wrote, however, tapped more fully into contemporary sounds like ragtime. Shortly after composing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Johnson moved to New York to work as a songwriter. He collaborated for a time with his brother James, but he worked more extensively with Vaudeville performer Bob Cole. They wrote several show tunes before turning to musicals, writing The Shoo-Fly Regiment in 1907 and The Red Moon in 1909.
As the century progressed, J. Rosamond Johnson became an increasingly important figure of New York’s music scene. He headed New York's Music School Settlement for Colored People, and as African American artists began to define distinctive forms of music within the movement labeled the Harlem Renaissance, he played an important role. Along with his brother James, he even produced an anthology of black poetry and two collections of spirituals, and he also compiled collections of “shout songs” and black folk songs.
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.