James W. Johnson was asked to write a song for a public commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday—an event that doubled as a celebration of emancipation. Johnson drafted lyrics for the new piece, which his brother set to music. And, within a few years’ time, the song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, had become the national anthem of Black America.
The Appeal behind the Song
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ resonated with African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century for several reasons. First, it offered a powerful message of hope. In a post-Plessy v. Ferguson world, when life for African Americans was becoming more unequal, not less, the song buoyed spirits by reminding Black people of the hardships they had already overcome. If they could triumph over enslavement, they could triumph over Jim Crow.
Second, the song was grounded in Christian faith, and Christianity was African Americans’ lodestar. It guided their way over troubled water, leading them from slavery to freedom.
And third, the song did not gloss over Black America’s painful past; it confronted it head-on. It made plain, through stirring verse, exactly what African Americans had been fighting against, and what they had been fighting for.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Call for Collective Action
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ begins with a call for collective action in the name of securing freedom rights:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
Collective action was desperately needed at the start of the 20th century because the noose of Jim Crow was tightening around the necks of African Americans. Louisiana continued to play a leading role in dictating the terms of the color line. In 1902, it became the first state to pass a statewide law segregating streetcars. Virginia followed suit in 1904 with a nonmandatory law. When given the option, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company of Richmond decided to segregate its cars, despite having provided integrated service for 40 years.
Two days after the company announced its decision, Richmond’s Black residents crammed into a local church and debated how to respond. They concluded that the best way to register their discontent, and most importantly to get Virginia Passenger and Power to reverse course, would be to boycott the company’s streetcar service.
The next day, hundreds of African Americans stayed off the streetcars, choosing to walk rather than ride. And the day after that, still more did the same. African Americans sustained the boycott for several months by encouraging one another at public gatherings, from mass meetings to church services, and helping one another get around Richmond.
Virginia Passenger and Power refused to budge, and their stubbornness forced them into bankruptcy. But for African Americans, it was a pyrrhic victory. In 1906, the Virginia Assembly passed a mandatory segregation law. Jim Crow wasn’t going anywhere.
Speak Up and Speak Out
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ urged African Americans not to suffer silently. It encouraged them to speak up and speak out. Presaging the unapologetic voices of Black Power activists who would sing their own songs of freedom in the 1960s, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ encouraged African Americans to put white supremacists on public notice.
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Black journalists were leading advocates of collective action, and Black newspapers the primary outlets through which Black voices were heard. During the Richmond streetcar boycott, John Mitchell Jr., the intrepid editor of the Richmond Planet, led the charge to organize the protest, and through his pointed editorials, rallied support for the cause. His voice resounded, and Black people responded.
Crusade against Lynching
The so-called Fighting Editor of the Richmond Planet also crusaded against lynching, which at the time claimed the lives of two to three African Americans a week. Mitchell demanded an end to the heinous crime and insisted that the perpetrators of these vile acts be brought to justice. He also vowed to lift up the victims of mob violence. He urged his readers to say their names, so they would be remembered. He also spotlighted lynching victims so that the hurt of yesterday could be transformed into a source of strength for today.
This sentiment was echoed in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, where tragedy was turned into triumph, becoming a light to illuminate the way forward, a path African Americans could follow until they secured their freedom rights.
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.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
The Blues Tradition
The second verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ makes clear that the pain of the past was also not to be minimized. The dark days of slavery were to be remembered for what they were—bleak and depressing.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
These ideas echoed the burgeoning African American blues tradition. Still taking shape at the time, the blues was rooted in rural Southern Black music—the work songs, spirituals, and string ballads that African Americans sang during slavery and after emancipation in Texas, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Delta.
In tone and tenor, the blues captured Black suffering in the past and reflected Black anguish in the present. But the blues was also about liberation. Those who sang, played, listened, and danced to the blues found escape from life’s hardships, and the energy to press on.
Common Questions about ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ resonated with African Americans for several reasons. First, it offered a powerful message of hope; second, the song was grounded in Christian faith; and third, the song did not gloss over Black America’s painful past; it confronted it head-on.
Louisiana became the first state to pass a statewide law segregating streetcars in 1902.
The second verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ makes clear that the pain of the past was not to be minimized. The dark days of slavery were to be remembered for what they were—bleak and depressing.