Thursday, February 08, 2007
The Man and the Story of The Black National Anthem
On February 12, 1900, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem and the Negro National Hymn was sung publicly for the first time at the Stanton School, a Jacksonville, FL school for African-Americans.
It was written by James Weldon Johnson with music composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. The song was written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday at the school.
He and his brother had forgotten it, but the students who heard it that day didn't. They taught it to their children and other children throughout the South. The song became so popular that the NAACP offically adopted it as the Negro National Anthem in 1920.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our GOD,
True to our native land
The man who wrote it, James Weldon Johnson led quite an interesting life. Attorney, teacher, poet, diplomat, novelist, Broadway lyricist and civil-rights leader.
He was born in Jacksonville, FL in 1871 during the heady optimism of the Reconstruction period. His mother was a schoolteacher at the Stanton School, his father a head waiter at one of Jacksonville's numerous resort hotels and young James and his brother grew up with middle class backgrounds. After completing the eighth grade he was sent to Atlanta, GA to attend the college prep school and university divisions for Atlanta University since there were no high school at the time in Fhis hometown for African-Americans. After graduating from Atlanta University in 1894 he returned home and became the first African-American attorney in Florida since Reconstruction.
He soon tired of practicing law and became principal of his alma mater the Stanton School. Thanks to the influence of Booker T. Washington in 1906 he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909 he moved to a more significant consular posting in Corinto, Nicaragua but left the consular service in 1913 after the election of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency.
He joined the NAACP in 1917 and as a field secretary established local chapters througout the South and increased overall membership from 10,000 to 44,000 by the end of 1918. In 1920 he became the first African-Ameerican secretary (CEO) of the multi-racial NAACP and held that post until 1931.
He was also continuing his literary efforts and was more renowned as an writer than a civil-rights warrior. During this time period he'd moved to New York, gotten married and played an active role in the Harlem Renaissance. He served as a mentor to writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and urged others to draw upon everyday African-American life as inspiration for their creative works.
He was deeply commmited to exposing the brutality and injustice heaped upon African-Americans and eliminating it. He pushed hard to get the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill passed that would have made lynching a federal crime. He not only worked successfully to get the NAACP on a firm financial footing but was responsible for the NAACP becoming a clearinghouse for civil-rights court cases. He worked with noted attorneys of that time in litigating a series of cases that attacked the legal pillars propping up segregation and worked closely with W.E.B. DuBois and Walter White (the man who succeeded him) to coordinate strategy.
He became a professor at Fisk University in 1931 and spent the remainder of his life teaching creative writing, American and African-American literature and writing. He was killed in an automobile accident near Wiscasset, Maine in 1938.
Johnson acknowledged in 1926 that he didn't originally set out to write a unifying national anthem when he penned the words to 'Lift Ev'ry Voice' and admitted that he'd let the song pass from his mind. But as songs sometimes do they take on a life and meaning of their own.
Thank you James Weldon Johnson, for all that you've done to uplift our people.