“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a song many African-Americans know from school or church. But if you didn’t hear it there, you may know it from one of a few landmark performances.
Motown’s Kim Weston sang it to nearly 100,000 people at the historic Wattstax concert in 1972. In 1990, singer Melba Moore released an all-star version that included Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. Gladys Knight and Bebe Winans added their own rendition in 2012. And this April, Beyoncé sang it at Coachella, highlighting black culture to a largely white audience.
So what is it about “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that speaks to a people, so much that it’s become known as the “black national anthem”?
Shana Redmond, a professor at UCLA who studies music, race, and politics and author of the book Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, says it’s a song about transcending difficulties — and those difficulties have never fully receded.
“Black communities across the globe continue to be vulnerable in very unique and unsettling ways,” Redmond says. “To sing this song is to revive that past — but also to recognize, as the lyrics of the song reveal, that there is a hopeful future that might come of it.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first performed in 1900, at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Fla., by a group of 500 children celebrating the anniversary of the birth of President Lincoln. The first verse opens with a command to optimism, praise and freedom:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and Heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
The second verse reminds us to never forget the suffering and obstacles of the past:
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
The third and final stanza is about the challenges of the future. They are to be met with perseverance, courage, faith, and trust in God:
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written at a pivotal time, when Jim Crow was replacing slavery and African-Americans were searching for an identity. Author and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the words as a poem, which his brother John then set to music. Two key events led to its being named the Negro National Anthem: In 1905, Booker T. Washington endorsed it, and in 1919, it became the official song of the NAACP.
“It spoke to the history of the dark journey of African-Americans,” says current NAACP president Derrick Johnson, “and for that matter many Africans in the diaspora [who] struggled through to get to a place of hope.”
The song became a rallying cry for black communities, especially in the South. But its influence reached well beyond those boundaries, according to Timothy Askew, an English professor at Clark Atlanta University and scholar of the song’s history.
“Even during days of segregation,” Askew says, “there were Southern white churches … who wrote to James Weldon Johnson and who said, ‘We are singing that song you called the black national anthem.’ People in Japan, South America, people around the world, particularly during the ’30s and ’40s, were singing this song.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” faded from popularity towards the end of the civil rights movement in favor of songs like “We Shall Overcome.” Askew says the song’s recognition as a black national anthem is actually one of the reasons it has moved in and out of favor.
“There were many African-Americans who were in conflict with that idea,” Askew says. “They were saying, ‘Well, if we have marched, and we have attained what we hope to be equality, we can’t have a black anthem. We need an anthem that links us all together.”
On the other hand, the song that theoretically should link all Americans together, “The Star Spangled Banner,” falls short of that goal according to Shana Redmond.
“The National Anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ was missing something — was missing a radical history of inclusion, was missing an investment in radical visions of the future of equality, of parity,” she says. “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ became a counterpoint to those types of absences and elisions.”
The song is now widely performed — at churches, schools, and graduation ceremonies and beyond. The Morgan State University Choir opens every concert with it. It’s included in nearly 30 different Christian hymnals, both black and white. Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed it.
In 2009, the entire nation heard its words when Civil Rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, and began by quoting the song’s third verse nearly verbatim.
“It allows us to acknowledge all of the brutalities and inhumanities and dispossession that came with enslavement, that came with Jim Crow, that comes still today with disenfranchisement, police brutality, dispossession of education and resources,” Shana Redmond says. “It continues to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe that something will change.
The reach of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” continues to expand. When Beyoncé sang it at Coachella, she knew the mostly white audience didn’t know the history of the black national anthem. But, she told Vogue magazine, “They understood the feeling it gave them.”