Last week in chapel I got to talk about one of my all time favorite hymns, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. I came a little late to the party–not becoming hooked by the song that millions love and consider the “Black National Anthem” until my late 20s when I started working at Grace Episcopal Day School. It was music teacher, fellow Hoosier and friend, Theolyn Wilson, who introduced me to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (LEVAS) and James Weldon Johnson. Johnson co-wrote the song with his brother, John Rosamond. Since my introduction to his work, I have enjoyed learning more about Johnson, reading his poetry and retellings of Bible stories from God’s Trombones and, of course, singing LEVAS and learning about its place in the Civil Rights Movement.
Fast forward 17 years. Here I am at Oregon Episcopal School and I find LEVAS is not part of the regular chapel repertoire…yet. Our fabulous music teacher agreed immediately to teach the kids the song last month so that they would be ready to sing the song in chapel for the first time this past Monday.
Here is a copy of my talk introducing some members of our school community to the song–and thinking of Theolyn and the great folks at Grace Episcopal Day School and Grace Church who first introduced the song to me. May it continue to inspire all people to lift our voices in solidarity and to work for equal rights for all.
Today we’re going to hear a story…
about the power of a song to be a Power for Good.
The teachers at Stanton Central Grammar School were planning an assembly in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Would the principal, James Weldon Johnson, give a speech, the teachers wondered.
The year was 1900. 35 years after the end of Civil War. 35 years after the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery.
The place was Jacksonville, Florida where memories of slavery were still fresh in the lives of the men and women who lived there. Some of the people who lived in Jacksonville had been slaves themselves and some had been slave owners. Some had fought in the war against the Union soldiers, while others had prayed for justice and freedom for all African and African American people.
Stanton Central Grammar School had been named for Edwin M. Stanton, an abolitionist, someone who fought for the end of slavery, and Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln. Some of the children and grandchildren of former slaves attended that school.
At the turn of the century, Jacksonville was a bustling place and was considered to be the most progressive city in the Deep South.
Mr. James Weldon Johnson, the principal at Stanton Central Grammar School, had been born in Jacksonville. He had even attended that same school and his mother had been the first African American public school teacher in Florida there. Not willing to stop his education after he graduated from Stanton in the 8th grade, James traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where he attended high school and then college.
After graduating from college, James returned to Jacksonville and became a teacher at Stanton. A little later, he became the principal.
Like Abraham Lincoln before him, James Weldon Johnson loved justice and decided to become a lawyer. While still working as a teacher, he studied law and became the first African American lawyer in Florida after the Civil War. Like Abraham Lincoln, he believed in listening to people whose opinions were different from his own and trying to find common ground. Like Abraham Lincoln, he believed in hard work and hope. He believed in the power of good to change lives.
Abraham Lincoln had done much to point the country in the right direction, but, as James Weldon Johnson and other millions of African Americans knew, there was much work to be done before America could begin to live into its promise to be a land where all people were created equal and had equal chance to bloom. In 1900 there was still no public high school for African American students. Prejudice fueled Jim Crow laws that kept white and black people separate and not equal. But still, James Weldon Johnson had hope for a better America and a better future.
Teacher, principal, lawyer, and poet, James Weldon Johnson was a busy man. Would he have time to make a speech? The teachers wondered. James replied that he’d be happy to—and what’s more, he and his brother had written a song they would like the children to sing. It was called “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” James had written the words originally as a poem. His brother John Rosamond who had studied music at the famous New England Conservatory of Music composed the melody.
Though the brothers admitted later that they essentially forgot about the song after the assembly, others didn’t. It spread to nearby schools and churches throughout the South. And by 1920, LEVAS was adopted as the anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) when James himself was the chief executive officer of the group. Over the past 116 years it has been sung at countless civil rights marches, rallies and in churches and is thought to have inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. when composing his “I Have a Dream” speech. It is included in the Episcopal Church’s blue hymnal and in many other song books in Christian churches.
Let’s take a look at James Weldon Johnson’s words as illustrated by Bryan Collier.
Later Johnson moved permanently to New York. He continued to work for justice through his teaching and writing. A member of the Harlem Renaissance and friend to such writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurtson, Johnson wrote fiction, memoir, lyrics, and poetry. In one poem that he wrote nearly 20 years after “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” James spoke directly to the American dream. It’s called “To America.”
Now, what’s really cool is that we can even hear James Weldon Johnson reading the poem. This recording was made on Christmas Eve, 1934, when he was 63 years old.
Recording: Made on December 24, 1935 at Columbia University, recorded by Barnard professors George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects.
Throughout his life, James Weldon Johnson kept celebrating African American culture and battling racism. But he was also careful to not let racism’s bitter destructiveness destroy his spirit. Around the time he recorded the reading of his poem, “To America,” he wrote out this pledge for himself:
I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.
In “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we hear the words:
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.
Today we are still singing a song full of faith. Its melody comes to us from the past. From James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. From the millions of people who have since sung this song and dreamed of peace and justice, who have had faith in equality and love. We sing a song of hope and listen for its echo in our lives and in our country.
During our moment of quiet reflection, I would like you to think about how you can lift your voice and sing?
Johnson, James W. Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Pictorial Tribute to the Negro National Anthem. New York: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, 2000. Print.
(Historic black-and-white photographs accompany this version of the song.)
Johnson, James W, and Elizabeth Catlett. Lift Every Voice and Sing. New York: Walker, 1993. Print.
Johnson, James W, and Bryan Collier. Lift Every Voice and Sing. New York, NY: Amistad, 2007. Print.
Johnson, James W, and Jan S. Gilchrist. Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.