Most people remember when they first heard it. Perhaps it was elementary school. Church. A college graduation or special family occasion. For more than 100 years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (or “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”) has been a staple musical celebration of black excellence and pride in finding ways to survive (and thrive) in America.
But where did the song originate and how are so many of us able to hum at least the first stanza from memory so many years later? Here’s the background:
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” started as a poem. It was first recited in the year 1900 by 500 schoolchildren at the all black Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist, lawyer, and principal of the Stanton School, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to introduce famed educator Booker T. Washington, who was visiting the school at the time. Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson put the poem to music and it officially became a song.
In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song as its official “Negro national anthem” and it enjoyed widespread distribution and celebration. According to historians, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” experienced a resurgence during the civil rights movement, and many parents, churches and predominantly black schools went out of their way to ensure children knew the words.
Of course, the song hasn’t been free from controversy. In 2008 jazz singer Rene Mariesang words from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” instead of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Denver’s State of the City Address, which led to criticism.
A black professor who studied “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once said despite its inspiring message, calling it the “black national anthem” could be seen as separatist and racially divisive.
Despite any criticisms, its lyrics are reminders for black Americans that each generation has had to “lift” their own voices to demand and protect their rights. It’s a song we can still sing- and stand for- with pride.