In 1899, a young poet and school principal named James Weldon Johnson was asked to address a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., for the coming anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Just two decades had passed since the Reconstruction era, and lynchings were on the rise in the segregated South.
He paced back and forth on his front porch, agonizing over the lines of the poem.
After finishing each stanza, he handed over the lyrics to his classically trained brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who put the words to music, according to an account from James Weldon Johnson, recalled in the book “Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora” by Shana L. Redmond.
As he wrote the words, evoking the struggle and resilience of his ancestors, he began to weep. “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so,” Johnson recounted.
The following year, a chorus of 500 schoolchildren performed the song at the Lincoln celebration. The song quickly took off, becoming a rallying cry for black communities in the South, or as one observer noted at the time, “a collective prayer.”
It was embraced as a hymn in churches and performed at graduation ceremonies and in school assemblies. Within 20 years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” as its official song. For generations to come, it would be known widely as the “black national anthem.”
On Saturday night, in a performance in front of tens of thousands of people, one of America’s biggest pop stars paid homage to the song by singing a few of its lines. Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline the Coachella music festival in Indio, Calif. Her entire set — complete with a drum line, step dancing and musicians in berets — was an ode to black culture and historically black colleges.
But arguably the most significant moment in her show — politically and historically — was her rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as it is also called, just before transitioning to “Formation.” Based on the response on social media, the performance resonated particularly with black audiences live-streaming the performance at home.
The inclusion of the turn-of-the-century hymn was notable not only because of size of the audience but also because of the setting — a mainstream festival that is known for being attended predominantly by white people.
“To have someone on the scale of Beyoncé in a space like Coachella, is really a departure,” Redmond, an associate professor of musicology and African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s really something to pay attention to.”
Many black viewers reacting to the performance on Twitter agreed, calling her performance a “call to action.” Some said “Lift Every Voice and Sing” brought them to tears, bringing back memories of singing the hymn at church or elementary school as young children.
I cannot stress how much of an important moment in music history, Black history, American history, the entire history of me - it was to hear Beyoncé sing Lift Every Voice & Sing while 100+ screamed to and through the Ancestors. It was my pride/rage/power rolled up in 1 #Beychella— Nick Fury (@WritingTheWrong) April 15, 2018
Yet others on Twitter, along with Redmond, wondered how many in the audience could actually identify the song and its significance.
“It’s unclear to me to what extent the song resonated with those in the audience,” Redmond said. In her extensive study of the song’s history and role, she’s finding that fewer and fewer young people know the lyrics to the hymn. “It is not in wide use in the same way with contemporary generations as it has been with my parents and grandparents’ generation.”
More than 20 years ago, sociologist K. Sue Jewell conducted research showing that only 2 in 3 black U.S. college-age students were familiar with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
But what is clear is Beyoncé’s reach. “Beychella” was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, and the hymn’s title was itself a hashtag. It was perhaps one of the most high-profile, public stages for the song in recent years, Redmond said.
Reaching a large audience was in fact one of the goals of the song’s original writers, Redmond said. The Johnson brothers intended to not only uplift black communities still healing from slavery but also to send a message to the white public, to illuminate the suffering African Americans had endured for generations.
Even in the 1920s, the song gained wide praise from white, non-Christian observers, demonstrating the broad reach of the hymn. In 1928, Redmond recalled in her book, a white rabbi, Stephen Wise of the Free Synagogue in New York, wrote to the songwriters praising the hymn as the “noblest anthem I have ever heard,” and “a great upwelling of prayer from the soul of a race long wronged but with faith unbroken.” He suggested the song serve as a substitute for other national anthems. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would not be signed into law as the official national anthem until 1931.)
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is still sung as a hymn in many Protestant denominations. The strains of “Lift Every Voice” accompanied the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
On Aug. 20, 1972, a crowd of more than 100,000 black people gathered at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Wattstax festival. As The Star-Spangled Banner was performed, no one stood. And then, the Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a rousing speech, and famously invited the masses to sing the black national anthem. Everyone stood, punching fists in the air as soul singer Kim Weston belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., recited part of the hymn while delivering the benediction at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
Redmond said she has noticed a revival of the song’s use in political protest in recent years, particularly with the rise of black protest movements on college campuses. After the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting, protesters at Howard University joined around the flagpole at the center of campus, praying and singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
A retired Howard professor, Eugene Williams, spent months last year urging NBA teams to play the song at games during Black History Month. Several teams agreed, including the Washington Wizards, who played the song during a timeout midway through the first quarter during a game against the Golden State Warriors.
In 2017, dozens of New York Police Department officers stood in solidarity with NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who gained national attention for refusing to stand during the national anthem. The officers wore black shirts with the logo “#ImWithKap” and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
But the song has also spurred controversy. In 2008, jazz singer Rene Marie was asked to perform the “Star Spangled Banner” at Denver’s State of the City address. While she stuck with the same melody, she sang the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” merging the two songs. State and local politicians condemned her performance, painting it as unpatriotic.
The hymn has even created some divisions within the black community.
Timothy Askew, an associate professor of English at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, has said that although he loves the hymn, he feels it should not be labeled as a “black national anthem.”
“To sing the ‘black national anthem’ suggests that black people are separatist and want to have their own nation,” Askew told CNN. “This means that everything Martin Luther King Jr. believed about being one nation gets thrown out the window.”
Redmond argued that the anthem is an important way for Americans — particularly African Americans — to live out their citizenship.
“I think all citizenship is performed,” she said. “It’s not just something we’re born with, it’s something we’re born into. … That’s how people learn to represent themselves and see themselves in these United States.”
“There’s something already built into ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ that encourages people,” she said.
Read the lyrics for yourself:
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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