“Lift Every Voice and Sing”: Understanding The Black National AnthemDec 12, 2020 08:00AM ● By Kassidy Garland
Earlier this year, the NFL began its season differently than in past years. They acknowledged the mistreatment of players protesting the country’s national anthem. Players like Colin Kapernick had been kneeling through “The Star Spangled Banner” as a form of protest against police brutality. Along with the announcement, the NFL made the decision to play the Black National Anthem, which caused confusion across the country. The confusion came from a lack of understanding of the history and true meaning of the song.
After the end of the Civil War, the country was in disarray. Businesses, local governments and communities were struggling to rebuild. Black communities grew and worked together to create their own outlets including schools, religious and social organizations and newspapers. In the center of all of this were brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson. James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer and principal, while his brother, John Rosamond was a music teacher.
In 1899, years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, James Weldon Johnson penned the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a way to commemorate the late president’s birthday. When he struggled to organize his thoughts, he switched to writing about the Black struggle and perseverance. The journey of the poem brought him to tears, and shortly after, James Rosamond composed the music.
Once the song was finished, it was performed by the Johnsons’ students. It was first performed by a chorus of 500 young voices, and it grew from there. Although the Johnson brothers moved away from Jacksonville, Florida to the cultural hotbed of Harlem, New York after this performance, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” grew in popularity. In 1935, James Rosamond explained, “The schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children.”
The song was soon promoted by Black leaders and organizations, even becoming the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before “The Star Spangled Banner” was adapted as the national anthem. To this day, it remains the song that unifies Black communities. As a true signifier, it became the anthem of protests and civil rights movements. In the 1950s, the song was quoted by MLK, Jr. and used during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Soon, the song was replaced with folk songs that had simple and direct choruses.
In more recent years, the song has gained popularity once again. After the murder of George Floyd, Jon Batiste organized a musical protest in New York -- they began with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song has also been performed by a number of other Black artists including, Beyonce, Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder. The song is still performed as a form of unity and as a fight against oppression.
Kassidy Garland has had a great appreciation for reading and writing since she was young. She graduated from West Chester University in 2017 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English & Women and Gender Studies. With a concentration in creative writing, Kassidy has 5 years of experience writing blogs, articles, and for social media. Based out of Philadelphia, Kassidy loves to write about a number of topics and looks forward to sharing her passion with those at FunTimes Magazine.