By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A tribute song to Abraham Lincoln and emancipation spread like wildfire. Written by two African American brothers, it grew from Florida to a national sensation in just a few years. This week on Wondrium Shorts, taking a look at “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Local leaders in Jacksonville, Florida, asked James Weldon Johnson to write a song to commemorate what would have been Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday: February 12, 1900. The event would also serve as a celebration of the abolition of slavery. Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson penned the song and taught it to 500 Black schoolchildren. Soon after, the brothers left to pursue careers in songwriting in New York, without giving much thought to the song from Jacksonville.
In a few years’ time, it spread to every Black household in the United States and became known as “the national anthem of Black America.”
In his video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, provides a history of the song and what it meant to African Americans.
An Important Message at an Important Time
There are several reasons why “Lift Every Voice and Sing” resonated so strongly with African Americans.
“First, it offered a powerful message of hope,” Dr. Jeffries said. “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 is deeply rooted in Christian faith, which Dr. Jeffries referred to as a “lodestar” for African Americans. Both Christianity and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” together or separately, helped serve as guiding lights from slavery to freedom.
“And third, the song did not gloss over Black America’s painful past; it confronted it head-on,” he said. “It made plain, through stirring verse, exactly what African Americans had been fighting against, and what they had been fighting for.”
The song begins with a call to collective action for freedom rights before encouraging African Americans to publicly hold white supremacists’ feet to the flames for their deeds. These collective actions were often done through articles written by Black journalists for Black newspapers and on the streets, to which the song harkened back.
And that’s just the first verse. Several more strong verses follow.
Going Out with a Bang
The final stanza of lyrics in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” read “Shadowed beneath Thy hand / May we forever stand / True to our God / True to our native land.” Here, Dr. Jeffries says, it draws faith and hope together: Faith that continuing to walk with God would lead African Americans to great reward and hope that they would not falter from their beliefs.
“The very last line of the song, ‘True to our native land,’ is about neither faith nor hope,” he said. “It is instead about Black consciousness. Harkening back to the call for collective action with which the song began, the last line invokes Africa, the native land from which African Americans had been stolen.”
According to Dr. Jeffries, this invocation is just as much about looking to the future as it is about looking to the past. This is because conquering Jim Crow would require solidarity, a closing of ranks, and a rallying around their national identity.
“That which had been used to oppress them would liberate them.”