Lift Every Voice and Sing : A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem; 100 Years, 100 Voices
"A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercise. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children. "Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used. "The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children."
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October 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Lift Every Voice and Sing by Julian Bond
It is wondrous and hardly explicable to many how James Weldon Johnson could have written such spiritually enriching lyrics in 1900 despite the restraints ordained by Jim Crow laws, despite frenzied lynchings and mob violence, despite the fact that white America had established an educational system teeming with stereotypes that had misrepresented and malformed virtually every external view of African American life. Underpinning these sweeping injustices was the Supreme Court's ruling in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case four years before "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written in 1900. This decision meant that state laws requiring "separate but equal" facilities for African Americans were a "reasonable" use of state powers. Further, "The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the laws, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" is fittingly provocative. Yet its message, ingeniously crafted, does not fuel the fires of racial hatred. Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier pointed out that in "Lift Every Voice and Sing," James Weldon Johnson endowed the African American enslavement and struggle for freedom with a certain nobility. Frazier further noted that Johnson expressed an acceptance of the past and confidence in the future. It is likely that Johnson was attempting to cultivate a sense of history among his race. On the one hand, the lyrics reveal how African Americans were estranged from their cultural past by the impact of racial oppression and that they manifested the psychological and physical scars inflicted by that injustice. On the other hand, the song is irrefutably one of the most stalwart and inspiring symbols in American civil rights history. Not wanting African Americans to lose hope, James Weldon Johnson included in the lyrics none of his pragmatic reservations regarding justice for his race. His enriching directive is assuredly one of the mainstays of the song's mastery and endurance. Notwithstanding, he tells us in "Lift Every Voice and Sing" that we must persist--we must remain vigilant until victory is won.
To understand how James Weldon Johnson conceived and produced such motivating lyrics when white supremacy served as the backdrop of virtually every phase of black life, one has to comprehend his beliefs and experiences, so clearly evident in the "everlasting" song he called "the Negro National Hymn." In the lyrics we see his unswerving self-confidence and optimism, his faith in African Americans, and his strong belief that the then existing system, a counterfeit representation of the United States Constitution, could not endure.