Thursday, July 5, 2018

"Lift Every Voice and Sing"

As yesterday, July 4, was Independence Day here in the U.S., “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the official national anthem since 1931, has been sung and played often in the past few days, including at many churches on this past Sunday. But this article is about what has often been called the “Black National Anthem.”
Introducing the Johnson Brothers
James Weldon Johnson was a premier African-American author, educator, songwriter, and civil rights activist who died 80 years ago at the age of 67 in a tragic car/train accident on June 26, 1938.
His brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, two years younger, was born 145 years ago in 1873 and died at the age of 81 in 1954.
The Johnson brothers were born in Jacksonville, Florida, but as young men they moved to New York and in the 1920s became leaders in the Harlem Renaissance. Prior to that, James was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the U.S. counsel to Venezuela (1906-08). He then served as counsel to Nicaragua from 1909 to 1913.
Six years after its founding in 1910, James began working for the NAACP. In 1920 he was chosen as the first black executive secretary of that organization.
Rosamond was trained at the New England Conservatory and then studied in London. He also was actively involved in the work of the NAACP, but he is mainly known as a composer and singer who had a successful show business career.  
James W. and J. Rosamond Johnson
Introducing “Lift Every Voice . . .”
As a young man, James Johnson was the principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville. In 1900, Booker T. Washington was coming to his school as part of the celebration of the 91st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
To introduce the honored guest, the Johnson brothers decided to write a song for the occasion. James penned the lyrics and Rosamond wrote the stirring music for the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
At that February 1900 celebration, a chorus of 500 “colored school children,” as James later wrote, sang their song at the school where he was principal. Within 20 years it was being sung across the South and in some other parts of the country—and was adopted as the official song of the NAACP.
Click here to read the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or even better click here to see/hear it sung on YouTube by the (mostly white) Mormon Tabernacle Choir in May of this year.
Introducing the Rationale
Some USAmericans, including some African-Americans, question the validity or propriety of referring to “Lift Every Voice” as the “Black National Anthem.” They say, for example, that to call it that suggests that black people are separatists and want to have their own nation.
There are many, though, who think it is appropriate for African-Americans to have an alternative to the anthem that was penned in 1812, more than a half-century before the emancipation of the enslaved black people in the U.S.
They, and I am one of them, think it is hypocritical to sing a song about “the land of the free” that was written when there were millions of people in the land who were by no means free.
Even though freedom in the U.S. was theoretically bestowed upon all blacks soon after the Civil War, in reality to be “free at last” was still a part of MLK’s dream in 1963.
Every year at the MLK birthday celebration held in William Jewell College’s Gano Chapel, a highlight of the service is when all participants join hands and strongly sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Let's continue to join hands and work together "till victory [freedom/equality/mutual respect] is won" for all. 


  1. It has a similar ring to the "Battle Hymn" - another moving song, except it was used as a war song in attacking one's own countrymen (and even family). Just the title, "Black National Anthem" sounds divisive. Several of my favorite people of all time (ones I have personally known), have/had more melanin in their skin - Steven Wanji, Rodney Knott, Turbo Qualls, Asum Wishe... For me, my favorite anthems are "America the Beautiful", Mungu Ibariki Afrika", and "Hymn for the Nations".

    Tangentially, Sen Susan Collins is pushing for a new Supreme Court Justice who will give Stare Decisis precedence. But not seriously. If that were true, she would point to one of THE major Supreme Court decisions which was never overturned regarding people of "color" - Cherokee Nation vs State of Georgia (1832). The northwestern portion of Georgia, down to Atlanta, is actually the Cherokee Nation, not Georgia, and not the United States. It is time to honor Stare Decisis and return the Nation to its rightful people - the Cherokee. (The Presidents who intentionally refused to honor this decision, and in fact went the other way were Jackson, Van Buren, Lincoln, Grant - all racist men of infamy.

  2. Yesterday I received an email from a Thinking Friend who lives in a small Missouri town. She wrote, in part,

    "I had found the song and loved it and played it very joyfully [at her church] but when we had a black lady as a minister she told me I was not allowed to play that, that it was for African Americans. I felt rather shamed somehow, and have not found the joy in the song again."

  3. I didn't know how to respond to the above comment, so I wrote an African-American friend who is a university professor (with a Ph.D.). Here is part of her response:

    "As for 'Lift Every Voice,' I've sung the song in Black churches and progressive White churches. I have to say, it does feel a bit out of place singing it in a White church. I would equate it to a woman writing a song about the #metoo movement that women sing and then men begin to sing. It's not wrong, but clearly the song is not about men or necessarily designed to speak to men. Nonetheless, it would be a song that I think all should be familiar with and perhaps should sing together."
    . . . .
    "As for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's recreation of the song--well, it is no longer a 'Black song' the way they have performed it. Stylistically it is different and even the meaning of the song is different when read through the lens of Mormon history. Still, I am proud that this song is being given 'voice' far and wide. Ultimately, I think this should be the aim of the song--hope and glory to God for all."

  4. After receiving the above response, which I much appreciated, I wrote to my friend:

    "After reading your response, I regretted using the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the musical link. Given the Mormons' history of discrimination against blacks, that was a poor choice. I listened to several YouTube versions, some sung by blacks only, but I never could find one I really liked. (I wanted one like the way it is sung at the MLK program each January here in Liberty.) If you have a good suggestion, even now I might change the link in the blog article."

    1. Here is the reply my friend kindly made about the above comment:

      "As for including the MTC link, I enjoyed it and I think it is the right thing to include in your blog post. As for the history of the Mormon church, I was actually referring to their history of relative persecution as a more modern branch of Christianity viewed more as a cult than a religion. I could see how this song might appeal to the Mormon Church. Plus it does help them reconcile those nasty racists bits that exist within Mormon theology--a reconciliation the Church in general should seek. So perhaps the song belongs in the Church as a song of reconciliation."

  5. June asked a local African-American friend about the comments of the pastor mentioned above. Here is part of what her friend (a retired college professor) wrote in response to June's email inquiry:

    "I don't know the African American minister who told you the song should only be sung by blacks. I totally disagree and believe in the title, Lift EVERY VOICE and SING. There is no monolithic voice for African Americans, so each individual has his or her opinion concerning how others should act. . . . I am certain that the song is sung in black congregations, and in white congregations that choose to do so. The words could apply to any group who has gone through struggles and discrimination. It is a beautiful song."

  6. I am also late in posting these brief comments received from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Enjoyed the music and information about the Johnson Brothers. That phrase you mentioned in the National Anthem has bothered me too."