By Don Rhodes
Sheryl Lee Ralph made history last February at the 2023 Super Bowl.
The actress/vocalist was the first person to sing the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (“The Negro National Anthem”) at the national sporting event. The audience probably included many who had never heard the song until Ralph performed the rendition with a choir at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Although Black residents of Augusta and the surrounding area have been singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for more than 100 years in churches and other places, few locals might know that two brothers from Jacksonville, Fla., co-wrote the song.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (opening verse)
Lift every voice and sing,
’Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening 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.
James Weldon Johnson was a 28-year-old principal of the all-Black Stanton public school in Jacksonville when he wrote a poem to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the birth of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Johnson’s younger brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who became a famous composer for Broadway and vaudeville shows, set the verses to music which led to the famous anthem being born. A choir of 500 Black students in Jacksonville’s segregated Stanton School first performed the song live in 1900.
When the influential Booker T. Washington endorsed the song after the brothers relocated to New York, it gained momentum, especially among the Black communities nationwide. In 1998, Augusta Reverend Larry Fryer wrote in The Augusta Chronicle, “Mr. Johnson felt that black and white Americans must continue the struggle to ensure that all citizens were given the rights guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution.”
By 1916, James Weldon Johnson had become a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and by 1920 he was the executive secretary of the NAACP. He employed the song at NAACP functions and other gatherings.
Johnson was also a friend of the Reverend Silas X. Floyd who became the pastor of Augusta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church and the first black regular columnist of The Augusta Chronicle. The two were Atlanta University classmates and Johnson began visiting Augusta as early as 1917 at the invitation of Floyd.
Floyd wrote of Johnson saying, “Jim Johnson is one of the brightest men Atlanta University ever turned out. He leaves today but promises an early return to Augusta.” It turns out that Floyd and Johnson had more than just business or religious connections to Augusta. Johnson’s brother ended up marrying Floyd’s niece whose mother, Mary Drayton Floyd, was raised in Augusta.
James Weldon Johnson would go on to become the first Black professor of New York University, write campaign songs for Teddy Roosevelt and be appointed by U.S. President Roosevelt as ambassador to Venezuela and Nicaragua.
1939: Augusta Savage’s sculpture (a choir of children shaped into a harp), which was named after the song, was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair.
1969: Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, included the song being sung by the audience and students at her 8th-grade graduation ceremony.
1972: Kim Weston opened the Wattstax Festival in Los Angeles with the song.
1975: James Brown quoted a lyric from the song during his performance of the U.S. National Anthem before the Muhammad Ali versus Chuck Wepner boxing match.
1990: Melba Moore’s modern version was recorded along with other notable R&B singers.
2009: Revered Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used a near word-for-word rendition of the third stanza for his benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
2016: Renditions of the anthem were added to the National Recording Registry.
2018: Beyoncé sung the anthem at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
2020: During protests over the murder of George Floyd, the song Gained wider public attention. President Joe Biden referenced the hymn in his action plan called “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America,” concerning racial disparities in the U.S.
Other notable recognition includes:
The National Football League Week one games’ performance of the song for the 2020 season.
The 2021 PBS Independence Day Special, A Capitol Fourth, included the song for commemorating Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Google’s Juneteenth-themed home-page animation set to spoken word by LeVar Burton.