Lift Every Voice and Sing
Why do we sing the Black National Anthem? That is a question that I am sure many people have asked themselves. What is it exactly and why is it necessary? Before we can answer this question, we must first understand the social, historical, and political context of how the song came into existence.
The song began, very humbly, as a poem written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson to observe Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Hawn, 2018) (Patterson, 2017) (Perry, 2018) (Rollins-Harper, 2008). It was performed by 500 school children in Jacksonville, Florida and was later set to music by Johnson’s brother, Rosamond (Perry, 2018) (Rollins-Harper, 2008). Despite its inconspicuous beginning, it would become widely published among black newspapers, taped on the back of hymnals in black churches, and sang at HBCU graduation ceremonies. Within approximately 20 years, the N.A.A.C.P. would adopt “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the black National Anthem (Patterson, 2017) (Perry, 2018) (Hawn, 2018) (Rollins-Harper, 2008).
It is not surprising that the song grew in popularity because it was conspicuously situated within a very pivotal time in American history. Just 35 years prior, the Civil War ended in 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, formally abolishing slavery in the United States (Lincoln, 1865). In that same year, the Reconstruction Era began, and the Freedman’s Bureau was soon organized to provide relief and assistance to former slaves. The Reconstruction efforts included various congressional legislative measures, referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments, which included the 14th Amendment which gave citizenship rights to former slaves and the 15th Amendment which gave black men the right to vote. African Americans were active in the political and civil realm and would often make up the majority of southern republican voters (History.com Editors, 2018). The Reconstruction only lasted for 12 years when in 1877, the efforts to reunite the north and the south and ensure equality for blacks were abandoned. The period following the Reconstruction Era would come to be known as the nadir of American Race Relations (Gilmore, 2018) (Logan, 1954).
The nadir flew in on the heels of the failed Reconstruction Era and it was considered the lowest point of American race relations (Logan, 1954). Promises designed to bring blacks into full citizenship and empower them with economic freedom, were cut short by failed legislative efforts and the constant threat of violence from white supremacists. Southern states instituted Black Codes which were laws that restricted the freedom of blacks, lynching increased, and the KKK was born. Lift Every Voice was written only some six years after the 1896 historic landmark court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson which upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine, firmly establishing the rise of the Jim Crow south (Valentine Museum in Richmond, 2003) (Howard University, 2018) (Patterson, 2017).
To some, the Black National Anthem may seem like an unnecessary afterthought or some song that they heard Beyoncé sing at Coachella. After all, as Americans, we already have a national anthem. However, history has provided us with the context for Johnson’s poem. It simultaneously communicated the hope of true freedom and the atrocities of the not-so-distant past of a people who were freed but not free. Moreover, blacks had established “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as their anthem well before “The Star Spangled Banner” officially became the nation’s anthem in 1931 (Lineberry, 2017) (History.com Editors, 2018). On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key penned what he witnessed the day before at the Battle of Baltimore in the poem that would ultimately become the National Anthem (Lineberry 2007). According to Brent D. Glass, Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, “The Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of American history that ranks with the Statue of Liberty and the Charters of Freedom” (Lineberry, 2017). It is indeed a symbol that has been fought for by soldiers of all colors. But unfortunately, like our nation’s long, sometimes dark and complicated history, it also carries with it the lingering sentiments of racism. In the third stanza, it reads,
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
For this reason, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a song that truly represented the ideals of freedom and instilled a sense of pride in those who needed it most both then and now. An anthem is defined as a rousing or uplifting song identified with a group, body, or cause. Additionally, it is a solemn patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity. But how do a people stripped of its national collective identity and land, stripped of its language, traditions, and customs preserve their culture when those are the very things upon which culture is created? This is the mystery of the perseverance of black people in America and how they endured the atrocities of the middle passage, slavery, the nadir, Jim Crow, lynching and terrorism, the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, and police brutality. Lift Every Voice is an example of a cultural artifact, a song that communicated ideals that spoke directly to blacks at a very pivotal and dangerous time in our nation’s history. Those lyrics are still relevant today. While the song has fallen in and out of popularity over the last one hundred years, we still sing it today because it still needs to be heard, because it’s a product of our culture, and it is a call to action.
So, let us “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.”
Gilmore, G. E. (2018, December 28). Somewhere’ in the Nadir of African American History, 1890-1920.” Freedom’s Story. Retrieved from National Humanities Center: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/nadir.htm
Hawn, M. (2018). History of Hymns: Lift Every Voice and Sing. Retrieved from Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-lift-every-voice-and-sing
History.com Editors. (2018, December 27). Black Leaders During Reconstruction. Retrieved from History: https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/black-leaders-during-reconstruction
History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). The Star Spangled Banner . Retrieved from History: https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/the-star-spangled-banner
Howard University . (2018). Reconstruction Era: 1865-1877. Retrieved from Howard University Libraries: https://www.howard.edu/library/reference/guides/reconstructionera/
Lincoln, A. (1865, February 1). Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 3. General Correspondence. 1837 to 1897: Congress, Wednesday,Joint Resolution Submitting 13th Amendment to the States; signed by Abraham Lincoln and Congress. Retrieved from Library of Congress: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms000001.mss30189a.4361100
Lineberry, C. (2017, March 1). The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner . Retrieved from Smithsonian: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-behind-the-star-spangled-banner-149220970/
Logan, R. W. (1954). The Negro In American Life And Thought; The Nadir, 1877-1901. New York: Dial Press.
Patterson, B. (2017, November 12). Black Americans Have Our Own National Anthem. Stand Up and Sing It With Us. Retrieved from Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/11/black-national-anthem-lift-every-voice-and-sing-it-with-us/
Perry, I. (2018). May We Forever Stand. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Rollins-Harper, N. (2008, January 29). The Black National Anthem or Lift Every Voice and Sing. Retrieved from Black History: http://blackhistory.com/content/62362/the-black-national-anthem
Valentine Museum in Richmond. (2003). Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution. Retrieved from America’s Reconstruction People and Politics After the Civil War: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/epilogue.html
Valentine Museum in Richmond. (2003). The Ending of Reconstruction. Retrieved from America’s Reconstruction People and Politics After the Civil War: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/section5/section5_intro.html
Valentine Musuem in Richmond . (2003). Introduction. Retrieved from America’s Reconstruction People and Politics After the Civil War: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/introduction.html