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The history of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the Black anthem being played at NFL games

Poet, author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, wrote the lyrics to "Lift Every Voice and Sing." His brother John Rosamond Johnson composed the music. (Charles H. Phillips/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” begins on a powerful low note, then steadily rises in rhythm, spanning the pain and promise of Black history, picking up pace in the stanzas until its final crescendo. The song’s opening words have long been a source of inspiration and comfort to African Americans:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

On Thursday night in Kansas City, the National Football League featured a live performance of “Lift Every Voice” by Alicia Keys before its season-opening games, a display prompted by the police brutality and racial justice protests that have swept the country after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The league’s decision to play “Lift Every Voice” exposed millions of Americans to the song for the first time.

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The song, known as the Black national anthem, was played more than 20 minutes before “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written by slaveholder Francis Scott Key and includes lyrics about the capture of escaped slaves who fought for the British during the War of 1812.

“Playing the Black national anthem is wonderful to acknowledge what Black people have been through in this country, but that doesn’t negate the racist authorship of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ ” said CeLillianne Green, a historian, poet, lawyer and author of the book “A Bridge: The Poetic Primer on African and African American Experiences.” “Most people don’t know what the second and third stanzas say in the national anthem and that Francis Scott Key was outraged by Black people fighting for their freedom. They hide those stanzas.”

“Lift Every Voice” was composed as poem in 1899 by novelist, poet and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson when he was principal of a Black high school in the segregated city of Jacksonville, Fla., according to the Library of Congress. His brother John Rosamond Johnson — who had trained in musical conservatories in London and Boston — composed music for the poem.

The song, according to James Weldon Johnson, was first performed by his students. “A group of young men in Jacksonville, Fla., arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900,” Johnson explained. “My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.”

Soon after that first performance, the Johnson brothers moved to New York and almost forgot about the song. But “Lift Every Voice” seemed to take on a life of its own.

“The school children of Jacksonville kept singing it,” Johnson said. “They went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.”

The song would become known as the “Negro national anthem,” after Booker T. Washington recognized it in 1905, and the NAACP adopted it as an official song.

Johnson, a celebrated author of “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse" and “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” said that even after so many years, whenever he heard the song, he was moved. “The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

Johnson, who was educated at Atlanta University and Columbia University, was the first Black man admitted to the bar in Florida, according to a 1929 Tampa Bay Times article. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

After returning to the United States, Johnson became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a fierce anti-lynching crusader. He coined the term “Red Summer of 1919″ to describe the blood in the streets during race massacres that erupted nationwide after World War I.

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He later taught creative literature at Fisk University and edited anthologies on poetry and spirituals. But his life was cut short in 1938 after his car was hit by a train on the Maine Central Railroad. He was 67.

Over the years, “Lift Every Voice” continued to grow in power, sung by celebrated artists at concerts and ordinary people in church on Sunday mornings. The song is performed at graduations and school ceremonies at historically Black colleges and universities.

In 1990, celebrated singer Melba Moore released a recording of the song, featuring Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder. In 2009, the Rev. Joseph Lowery quoted from the anthem during the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2018, Beyoncé performed “Lift Every Voice” during her headliner performance at Coachella.

Scholars argue that “Lift Every Voice" is a less divisive song than “The Star Spangled Banner.” The issue has been debated for nearly 100 years. In 1921, the Black Dispatch newspaper published a column announcing a contest for a new national anthem that could be offered as a “substitute to The Star Spangled Banner.” Some readers, even then, declared that the country should adopt “Lift Every Voice” as a national anthem.

“In commenting upon the possibility of luring the genius of song writers by the offer of recompense,” the column quoted a letter by Walter White, a reader in New York, calling attention to “Lift Every Voice,” which he referred to as “a soul-stirring anthem.”

White wrote: “No American can read these words or, better, hear them sung to the music of J. Rosamond Johnson, without feeling that Americans could go much further and fare worse than to use ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ as the national anthem.”

Here are the lyrics to the entire song:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list’ning 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.

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