"Lift Every Voice and Sing " -- also known as "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" and sometimes referred to as "The Black National Anthem" -- is a song that has a different meaning for different listeners. Some see the piece as a work of cultural art, yet the song remains steeped in controversy for others. Regardless of how the piece is interpreted, the history of the song is indeed a rich and colorful one.
James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics for the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in 1900. It wasn't until five years later, in 1905, that the words were put to music composed by Johnson's brother, John Rosamund Johnson. Originally written as a short poem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first used to introduce Booker T. Washington at a celebration for Lincoln's birthday, which was being held in a segregated school where James Weldon Johnson worked as principal. Pressed for time and anxious to come up with a speech, Weldon instead penned the lyrics to his now-famous song.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" quickly caught on with people, particularly those of African-American heritage and of Protestant denominations. Many people in civil rights rallies, protests against Jim Crow laws and demonstrations against the Ku Klux Klan sang the song as a way of expressing their freedom and individuality. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dubbed the song "The Negro National Anthem" in 1919 because of its strong message regarding patriotism, hope and struggle.
The song is composed of three separate verses, or stanzas. The first stanza, the one most commonly played and heard today, contains the lyrics: "Lift ev'ry voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of Liberty .... 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."
Some individuals, like Clark Atlanta University English Professor Timothy Askew, resent the fact that the song is commonly referred to as "The Black National Anthem." Askew, who is an African-American, claims the song wasn't written specifically for people of his culture, but rather for people of all cultures.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" is a highly inspirational and motivational song. Because of this, the song still plays on gospel radio stations and is sung by church choir groups all around the country. Some modern contemporary and rhythm and blues artists have also recorded their own versions of the song.