As part of a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1900, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first publicly performed by 500 school children at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Fla. The school principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words and Johnson’s brother set them to music. The children continued to sing the song, popularizing it for generations to come.
Later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted the song as “The Negro National Anthem.” In calling for earth and heaven to “ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” the lyrics spoke out subtly against racism and Jim Crow laws—and especially the huge number of lynchings accompanying the rise of the Klan at the turn of the century.
By the 1920s, copies of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could be found in black churches across the country, often pasted into the hymnals. The words to the poem/song and another poem by Johnson can be read on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
The image above is from a children’s book about the song with an introduction by Jim Haskins. The artist, Elizabeth Catlett, grew up in D.C. and lived in Mexico. Her own life story is well worth reading, including being confronted by McCarthyism. Read this 2010 article in The Root, “Happy 95th Birthday, Elizabeth Catlett!” about her work as a noted sculptor and printmaker.
Lynn Manfredi: I love this song. It was the first of many lessons I received from coworkers who helped me understand the African-American culture when I taught kindergarten at the Central Presbyterian Child Development Center in downtown Atlanta. Children and staff were mixed, racially and economically, which was highly innovative in 1979. We sang this song every day as we worked to become part of Dr. King’s beloved community.
Michele Hall Robertson: I remember singing this each day in my westside Chicago Public School, way back in the late 60s and early 70s. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Gravier, who just happened to be white, taught it to us and sang just as loudly as us kids. She told us it was the Black National Anthem “but people of all colors should celebrate this song and each other.” I’ll never forget her. It gave me chills and pride then and now. #PowerToAllPeople #Liberty