Although there is, of course, no executive or legislature to so designate it, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is frequently referred to as the “Negro National Anthem.” It was written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. [John] Rosamond Johnson for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in Jacksonville, Florida, their hometown. James, who contributed the lyrics, records in his autobiography Along This Way (1933) that he and Rosamond taught the song to a chorus of five hundred schoolchildren who, after the event “kept singing the song; some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some of them became schoolteachers and taught it to their pupils. Within twenty years the song was being sung in schools and churches and on special occasions throughout the South and in some other parts of the country.” After the NAACP unofficially adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its own anthem, the song appeared in new, more politically charged contexts as well as in school assemblies and church meetings.
Johnson's poem, which he tells us he wrote in “a poet's ecstasy” followed by “that sense … which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences,” is both a good fit to Rosamond's music and a rhetorically effective post-Romantic lyric. The poem's sentiments are entirely spiritual, locating the sources of strength in the connection to God. Though an agnostic himself, Johnson valorizes the people's religious faith and posits communal hope for the future as founded upon it.
The conservative sentiments of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” are one reason it receded in popularity somewhat during the civil rights movement. In recent years, the song has again become a fixture of African American social events, now as the historically validated anthem of the new cultural nationalism. As cultural icon, it has been explored in an enormously popular recording by Melba Moore in 1990 and in a text with the music, illustrated by Elizabeth Catlett (1993).
James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way, 1933; rpt. 1968.James Weldon Johnson, Lift Every Voice and Sing, 1993.
Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr.