“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was publicly performed first as a poem as part of a celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12, 1900 by 500 school children at the segregated Stanton School. Its principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words to introduce its honored guest Booker T. Washington. The poem was later set to music by Johnson’s brother John in 1905. Singing this song quickly became a way for African Americans to demonstrate their patriotism and hope for the future.
In calling for earth and heaven to “ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” they could speak out subtly against racism and Jim Crow laws—and especially the huge number of lynchings accompanying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the century. In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song as “The Negro National Anthem.” By the 1920s, copies of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could be found in black churches across the country, often pasted into the hymnals. In 1939, Augusta Savage received a commission from the World’s Fair and created a 16-foot plaster sculpture called Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. Savage did not have any funds for a bronze cast, or even to move and store it, and it was destroyed by bulldozers at the close of the fair.
The lyrics are ones of empowerment
Lift every voice and sing, till 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 till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning 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
thro’ the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from a gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
of our bright star is cast.