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Lift Every Voice and Sing

Cover of Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift Every Voice and Sing

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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...
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...
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  • 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."

    --James Weldon Johnson, 1935

    Pasted into Bibles, schoolbooks, and hearts, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson in 1900, has become one of the most beloved songs in the African American community--taught for years in schools, churches, and civic organizations. Adopted by the NAACP as its official song in the 1920s and sung throughout the civil rights movement, it is still heard today at gatherings across America.

    James Weldon Johnson's lyrics pay homage to a history of struggle but never waver from a sense of optimism for the future--"facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won." Its message of hope and strength has made "Lift Every Voice and Sing" a source of inspiration for generations.

    In celebration of the song's centennial, Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson have collected one hundred essays by artists, educators, politicians, and activists reflecting on their personal experiences with the song. Also featuring photos from historical archives, Lift Every Voice and Sing is a moving illustration of the African American experience in the past century.

    With contributors including John Hope Franklin, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Norman Lear, Maxine Waters, and Percy Sutton, this volume is a personal tribute to the enduring power of an anthem. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has touched the hearts of many who have heard it because its true aim, as Harry Belafonte explains, "isn't just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be."

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    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.

    Johnson's self-confidence and optimism are easily discernible in his early life. As a boy he staunchly proclaimed that he wanted one day to be the governor of his home state of Florida. His parents, James and Helen Dillet Johnson, had instilled in him and in his younger brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, such a sanguine view of America that the boys surely believed that whatever their young minds could conceive, they could achieve. During his early years, James believed himself beneficiary to all the privileges afforded any American who desired to develop his full potential. But while attending Atlanta University, he came to understand that the Jim Crow system did not allow status or individual liberation for African Americans, no matter what they achieved. This harsh realization enabled him to see through the deception of white...

About the Author-
  • Julian Bond was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was elected in 1965 to the Georgia House of Representatives. He is currently chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He lives in Washington, D.C.

    Sondra Kathryn Wilson, executor of James Weldon Johnsons literary properties, is an associate of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. Her publications include The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson, vols. 1 and 2, The Crisis Reader, The Opportunity Reader, The Messenger Reader, and The Complete Poetry of James Weldon Johnson. She lives in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
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