Written as a hymn for Black middle schoolers, the song’s celebration of resilient faith still resonates.
I was in elementary school when I learned the words to all three verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
As a Black adolescent in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—made famous by movies such as Boyz n the Hood, Training Day, and Straight Outta Compton—this song had particular meaning to me. It was sung with pride at church and social events during Black History Month, an annual commemoration that Black lives, Black accomplishments, and Black achievements matter.
Now known as the “Black national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was penned in 1900 as a hymn of hope—grounded in the belief that resilient faith would sustain us against oppression.
James Weldon Johnson, the songwriter, was born in Jacksonville in 1871 to a Haitian mother from the Bahamas and a father from Richmond. The Johnsons had moved to the coastal Florida city, which stood out as a place in the South where Black people had access to education (though segregated) and economic opportunity.
Like many other Black Americans at the time, James Weldon Johnson was influenced by the message of educator, orator, and public intellectual Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery in 1856, Washington advocated for Black liberation through economic and educational achievement, serving for decades as the first leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University).
Washington was also a devout Christian who integrated his pragmatic approach to faith into his service as an educator and national leader. He believed that God was powerful enough to liberate Black people from the evil of racism. Washington’s focus on education and emphasis on hope and resilience inspired Johnson.