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.
A remake of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was done in the 1990s by Melba Moore, with fellow R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick and Bobby Brown. (Watch the above video for peak 90s nostalgia and swag.) A stanza from the song was also recited by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery during the benediction at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
Of course, the song hasn’t been free from controversy. In 2008 jazz singer Rene Marie sang 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.
Watch our “Grio Black Facts” video above to see what happened when we quizzed people on the street about the song and comment below to share where you first remember hearing the “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lift every voice and sing, ’til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
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 ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, ’til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might, Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.