One hundred and twenty years ago, 500 African-American schoolchildren sang ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ for the first time in a segregated school in Florida.
In 2020, the song has been sung on countless Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches, on global stages such as the Coachella music festival (Beyoncé, 2018) and in sports stadiums and at graduations across the USA.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ began its life in 1899 when the school principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote a poem to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
The following year, James’ brother John Rosamond Johnson set the poem to music and so the choir of 500 children sang it. It wasn’t written or taught to be an ‘anthem’, but those children went home and kept singing it, teaching it to their families and friends and the song just kept on being sung, passing through communities.
By 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had adopted and labelled ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ as ‘the Negro National Anthem’. James Weldon Johnson was an active organiser in the NAACP, in 1917 organising a silent protest parade of more than 10,000 African Americans down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to protest the still-frequent lynchings of Black people in the South.
Dr Imani Perry describes the way in which the song was used as part of a massive educational project that grew the black children of early 20th century America into the adults who would have the confidence and skills to lead the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
During the direct action campaigns of this time, shorter songs more suited to this context became the ‘anthems’ of that time, such as ‘We Shall Overcome’, but Martin Luther King Jr still cited various lines from ‘Lift Up Your Voice and Sing’ in some of his sermons.
The song resurged in the Black Power movement, and, in 1972, at the radical and beautiful Wattstax concert, rev Jesse Jackson announced that ‘sister Kim Weston’ would sing ‘the Black National Anthem’.
Rev Markel Hutchins, when speaking about the song in July 2020, said that: ‘in a lot of ways, where “The Star-Spangled Banner” leaves off in terms of expressing the existence and the personhoods of African Americans, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” picks right up and really tells a more accurate and complete story of the experiences of black people in America. My hope is that people who are not in the African American community will embrace the lyrics, and understand the deep place of sorrow and yet hope that the lyrics of this song represent for black people in America.’
In September, a US sporting body, the NFL, announced that ‘Lift Every Voice’ would be played before every game during the first week of the season before ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, the US national anthem, is played.
The league has been widely criticised for tokenistic actions that don’t make meaningful difference for black players and workers. The NFL are ‘reportedly working with players on other ways to recognize victims of systemic racism’, rather than working to change the system itself.
The lyrics of the first verse strongly stand the test of time, and these are the words that seem to be speaking so strongly to the BLM movement today:
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.
This song, now 120 years old, lays out a clear roadmap for the present day; that we must acknowledge the pain and sufferings of the past as part of carving out a different, more hopeful, future for all of us.
It is the actions that we take alongside singing these songs that make the world change.
Songs can connect us to the movements that came before us and to those working alongside us in the struggle, but they only mean something if we are also working to dismantle the systems that oppress our brothers and sisters.
I could have used the whole of this article listing interesting versions of the song for you to listen to, but there just isn’t room! So I’ve put links to a dozen different versions on my website for you to peruse at leisure: www.tinyurl.com/peacenews3428