The National Black Anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing
At the dawn of the 20th century, post-Civil War reconstruction Civil Rights efforts were being dismantled; segregation had been codified through Plessy v Ferguson; and a Jim Crow reign of terror and exploitation was taking hold across the country.
In this hostile climate, many Black communities turned inward, forming their own schools, newspapers, musical groups, religious and social organizations. James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, two brothers from Jacksonville, Fla., were steeped in these institutions: James was a poet, lawyer and the principal of a segregated school, while John Rosamond taught music there.
The James Johnson family of Jacksonville, Florida, were exceptional in many ways: They were middle class, educated, and had been free from being enslaved since before the Civil War. The father was a minister, and the mother, Helen, was the state of Florida’s first Black female school teacher. It was into this setting that their two remarkably talented and determined sons were born.
As a child, James studied both piano and guitar, and learned how to read and write music. He received his education at the Stanton School, and then attended Atlanta University. After James’ graduation from college, he returned to Florida and became superintendent of the Stanton School. In 1895, as a sideline, he founded and edited the nation’s first black daily newspaper—The Daily American. James then decided to become an attorney; he taught himself law, and became the first Black American ever to be admitted to the state of Florida’s Attorney Bar Association.
John, as a very small boy, demonstrated outstanding talent at the keyboard. After his Stanton School education, he traveled to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. Around 1897, he returned to Jacksonville to become music supervisor for the public school district. It was there in 1900 that the two wrote a new song for their students, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which has since become the virtual Black National Anthem.
Before long, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the Black National Anthem, would become, in Perry’s words, “a universal signifier of Black identity.” It was sung at church services, civic organization meetings, pageants and graduations; it anchored Emancipation Day, Juneteenth celebrations and Black History Month celebrations and daily school routines.
Though the Black National Anthem started out as a poem, it was quickly made into a song that was passed along communally and by Black family oral traditions. The Black National Anthem was also boosted by powerful Black leaders and organizations, including the NAACP, Women’s Clubs and Booker T. Washington’s public events and Civil Rights protests. In 1919, the NAACP named, Lift Every Voice, the Black National Anthem its official song. As a thank you for his hard work and dedication in lifting and inspiring the Black Community, James Weldon Johnson would be appointed the organization’s first Black American executive secretary a year later.
When the Civil Rights Era began in the 1950s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was sung during organizational meetings for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and quoted in speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now, as Black activists continued to mobilize in their fight against discrimination and segregation, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” took on an increasingly political bent, symbolizing defiance in the face of white oppression, brutality and lynchings.
In 1929, the National Black Anthem was sung in support of the unionization of Black Pullman porters. The Black Pullman Porters fought and won rights for laborers and today, as a result of their sacrifices, America celebrates the holiday known as Labor Day. In 1936, the Black National Anthem opened the first conference of the National Black Congress. Maya Angelou, in her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled singing the song with her Black classmates in Oakland as a protest to a visiting unapologetic racist white politician.
When George Floyd was publicly lynched by Minnesota police earlier this year, Grammy winning artist and musician John Batiste organized a musical protest in New York, marching from Union Square to Washington Square Park. He and his band opened the procession with the National Black Anthem, and then played it five times along the way, with marchers singing along. John said, “When you play the National Black Anthem, people rise up and stand together and remember all that we have gone through,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘If we can get through all of that, we can transcend even this moment of atrocity.”
Today the National Black Anthem has been sung at Anti-Black racism protests from Seattle to New York. Harvard University, Princeton University and Stanford University even recorded a socially responsive choral version. The National Black Anthem has been played at professional sporting events like NASCAR races, NFL openers, the Super Bowl, Hollywood and Civil Rights events and famous musical tours, like Beyonnce, John Baptise, Whitney Houston, John Legend, the Roots and Alicia Keys.