Skip to content


January 15, 2022

This column has been drawn from many sources. Some are annotated while others are not. I have condensed those gleanings and transposed them into my own words.

Over these past months, I have asked that each of us contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that unless these nonprofit organizations are called to mind, they are quickly forgotten. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose those that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Northside Development Group, 501 Howard Street, Suite A, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29303, (864) 598-0097.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our nation will observe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday.  It is a time when songs from the Civil Rights Movement are sung with more frequency and greater fervor by many Americans.  One such hymn is “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It is sung in schools, in churches, and at various MLK Day celebrations throughout Black History Month.  It’s a powerful song and deeply moving, especially when we understand the context.

Standing before 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most memorable speech.  His “I Have a Dream,” seventeen-minute masterpiece ranks as one of the best oratories of the 20th century.  King’s urging to “let freedom ring” sounded familiar to most of the crowd because of the references he made to the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Several accounts support the idea that King drew from the hymn.

Novelist Guy Johnson, son of Maya Angelou, wrote about the connection in Julian Bond and Sondra Wilson’s book Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem, 100 Years, 100 Voices.  He described attending a civil rights meeting held by a local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in New York City in the early 1960s and coordinated by his mother.  Dr. King came to speak.  Guy Johnson reported, “The meeting was convened with a prayer and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”

In another essay from the Bond and Wilson collection, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia said that when he was a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. King came to preach.  The choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The Composition

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a hymn written in 1900 as a poem by James Weldon Johnson.  He was the first black leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music for the lyrics.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song was written for the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.

James Weldon Johnson, (1871-1938)

The elder Johnson was a lawyer, diplomat, professor, prolific writer, and poet.  When he wrote this song in 1899, he was the principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida.  That’s where the hymn debuted the following year, sung by 500 children at an event celebrating Black history and commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  

John Rosamond Johnson, (1873-1954)

The younger Johnson trained at the New England Conservatory of Music.  During his long musical career, Johnson composed and performed in stage musicals.  His work included various genres, from vaudeville and traditional theater to spirituals and Gospel music.

The Content

In 1919, the NAACP dubbed it “the Negro national anthem” for its power in voicing a cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people.

The song is a prayer of thanksgiving for faithfulness and freedom, with imagery evoking the biblical Exodus from slavery to the freedom of the “promised land.” It is featured in many different Christian hymnals and is sung in churches of most denominations across North America.

The lyrics written in flowing verse are only half of what makes this hymn so iconic.  The musical setting is rich with meaning and stirring in its own right.

Music teacher Antoine Dolberry shares the history and importance behind “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” As Antoine puts it, “the first verse opens with a command to optimism, praise, and freedom!”

The History

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written at a crucial time in American history, when Jim Crow replaced slavery.  African-Americans were searching for an identity of their own.  In 1905, Booker T. Washington endorsed it, and in 1919, it became the official hymn of the NAACP.

In 1900, when “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was composed, Black Americans were at a turning point in history. The visibility and influence of African-American traditions were growing, but Reconstruction efforts had failed to provide opportunities for Black People.  Racism stood ready to close any door Black achievers dared to open.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was history, a proclamation, and a vision for the future.  It immediately resonated with Black communities and institutions.

In 1919, the NAACP proclaimed it the “Negro National Anthem,” twelve years before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem.  It is a part of African-American worship tradition and an enduring refrain for Black musicians.

The Legacy

James Weldon Johnson himself best expresses the hymn’s legacy.  Among the pages of a 1935 collection of his poems, Johnson recalls what happened after the hymn was first performed by a chorus of 500 schoolchildren from the Johnsons’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.

“Shortly afterward, my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds,” he writes.  “But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children.  It was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country within twenty years.  The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

Notable Performances

In 1923, the male gospel group Manhattan Harmony Four recorded the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.“

In Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the song is sung by the audience and students at Maya’s eighth-grade graduation after a white school official dashed the educational aspirations of her class.

In 1972, Kim Weston sang the song as the opening number for the Wattstax Festival at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.  This performance was included in the film “Wattstax” made by Wolper Films.

During the opening logos, the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” features a 30-second cover of the song, played on a solo saxophone by Branford Marsalis.

In 1990, singer Melba Moore released a modern rendition of the song, which she recorded along with others including R&B artists Stephanie Mills, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, and Howard Hewett; and gospel artists BeBe & CeCe Winans, Take 6, and The Clark Sisters.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was entered into the Congressional Record by Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-DC).  It was also added to the National Recording Registry in 2016.

In 2008, jazz singer Rene Marie was asked to perform the national anthem at a civic event in Denver, Colorado.  She caused controversy by substituting the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into the song.  This arrangement of the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” became part of her 2011 CD release, “The Voice of My Beautiful Country.”

On January 20, 2009, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights movement leader who co-founded and is a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used a near-verbatim recitation of the song’s third stanza to begin his benediction at the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama.

The family of President Barack Obama, Smokey Robinson, and others sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the White House in 2014

On September 24, 2016, the song was sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and chorus after the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opening ceremonies, at which President Obama delivered the keynote address.

On October 19, 2017, when white supremacist leader Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida, the university’s carillon played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to convey a message of unity.

On April 14, 2018, Beyoncé included the song in the setlist of her concert at Coachella and as part of the resultant concert film and live album.

In May 2018, the hymn was sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during their worldwide broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” at the request of the National Executive Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who was holding its board meetings in Salt Lake City that year.

In 2020, portions of the song were played before and after Mike Phillips and West Byrd’s rendition of the national anthem at NASCAR’s 2020 Pocono 350.

In 2020, Google played a spoken word version of the song in a Google Doodle celebrating the Juneteenth holiday, performed by LeVar Burton.   

On July 2, 2020, the National Football League announced that the song would be played or performed live before the national anthem during the entirety of Week 1 of the 2020 regular season.  The league then signed Alicia Keys to record a version of the song at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; the video of her performance made its debut before the league’s opening night kickoff game on September 10, 2020 and was later replayed as part of the pre-game show of Super Bowl LV on February 7, 2021.  In July 2021, the league announced that it also plans to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” throughout the 2021 season, too.

A Proposal

Congressman James E. Clyburn is a member of the House of Representatives serving the sixth district from South Carolina.  He has proposed that the United States adopt “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the National Hymn that would be sung on patriotic occasions, not to replace the National Anthem that honors our flag.  Instead, this would be a hymn of unity to be sung by all Americans.

“To make it a national hymn, I think, would be an act of bringing the country together,” Clyburn, the House majority whip, put forward the proposal more than a year ago.  The highest-ranking Black American in Congress told USA Today.  “It would say to people, ‘You aren’t singing a separate national anthem, you are singing the country’s national hymn. The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”

More than thirty hymnbooks are already included the song, among them the Baptist Hymnal, the Methodist Hymnal, and the Presbyterian Hymnal.  It has been recorded by Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Harlem Boys Choir.    It is a song of healing for the human spirit and the soul of America. 

Consider these words to this important hymn:

Lift every voice and sing

Till 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 till 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

Till 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.

Our native land.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

To watch The Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform Lift Every Voice and Sing, click here.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: