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Hymn's Enduring Power as Black Anthem
The song grew in popularity when Johnson became an executive of the NAACP.
"It was sung at the opening of every meeting," said Roland Carter, who arranged the popular concert version of the song and is a professor of American music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "And 'We Shall Overcome' would be the closing anthem."
In one sign of how popular the song became, Carter's arrangement was played in space to awaken astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006.
Now that a black man presides at the White House, some have wondered whether the country still needs Black History Month, much less a black national anthem. The Rev. Vinton Anderson, a retired bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, sees a future for the hymn.
"I think we should continue the tradition of singing it," said Anderson, who helped place the song in the AME Church's bicentennial hymnal in 1984. "It reminds us of where we are, where we've come from and where we hope to go."
The Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University, believes the hymn isn't just for black Americans.
"I think it speaks to the hopes of, particularly, African Americans throughout our history," he said. "But also I think the song is one that not only gives hope but it also challenges to stay the path and to recognize the importance and significance of God in the struggle for freedom."
Though the hymn is a staple at African American gatherings -- from church services to convocations at black universities -- it has been embraced by people of a range of backgrounds. The song is included in Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal hymnals, among others.
The Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the predominantly white Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), chose the same stanza of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as Lowery did when she preached at the National Prayer Service the day after Obama's inauguration.
For a moment, when she heard the civil rights veteran use those same words in his prayer, she had second thoughts about using them.
"But I just thought, no, this belongs to everybody," Watkins said. "Those James Weldon Johnson words, they're just powerful."