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Hymn's Enduring Power as Black Anthem

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By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 14, 2009

When the Rev. Joseph Lowery was chosen to offer the closing prayer at President Obama's swearing-in ceremony, he knew which hymn he would borrow to start his prayer.

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"God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far along the way," he prayed, invoking the third verse from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the hymn that's long been considered the unofficial black national anthem.

"Thou who has by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray."

The words rang out across the Mall that day, and again the next day at the Washington National Cathedral in the sermon preached to the new president. For more than a century, they have been used to mark special occasions, including the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and have become a staple for Black History Month each February.

Lowery, a retired United Methodist minister who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, said he thought the song was entirely appropriate for the inaugural of the nation's first African American president.

"It had historicity; it had the religious context," said Lowery, who has used the third stanza as a regular hymn of praise in his worship services for 25 years. "The black experience is sort of wrapped up in that hymn."

Although Lowery has always called it a "national hymn" because he didn't think the nation should have two separate anthems, many African Americans give it the same honor as the traditional national anthem: They stand when it is sung.

"It is our 'Star-Spangled Banner,' " said Jackie Dupont-Walker, social action director of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is why many African Americans respectfully stand when the hymn is played.

"Lift every voice and sing, 'til Earth and heaven ring," the song begins. "Ring with the harmonies of liberty." Its words include echoes of slavery and triumphs of freedom, moving from the "dark past" to a present hope and looking toward the "new day" ahead.

The song traces its roots to a 1900 celebration of Lincoln's birthday in Jacksonville, Fla., according to a 2000 book, "Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem." James Weldon Johnson penned the words for the occasion and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, set them to music.

"Our New York publisher, Edward P. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored schoolchildren," he wrote in 1935.

The song that would catch on across the country initially "passed out of our minds," Johnson wrote. But children kept singing it, he said, passing it on to other children. Soon the song was pasted into the back of hymnals, Bibles and schoolbooks.

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