La J’ai Reed
(Rock Hill, S.C.) — In many black communities, especially during the month of February, one song will ring louder than anything you would normally hear on the radio.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” with lines including “true to our God, true to our native land,” touches the hearts of many African Americans, as the tune is often sung, hummed and played in celebration of Black History Month.
James Weldon Johnson penned the poem in 1899, during a time when the country was transitioning from slavery to Jim Crow and many African Americans were trying to find their place in society.
Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, later put the poem to music and the words have stood as a symbol of pride for many who have heard them.
The addition of a melody has also allowed the song to be easily shared across many miles and create a legacy of its own.
Dr. Nathaniel Frederick, director of the African American studies minor at Winthrop University, said the song “was written by and for African Americans.”
He said the lyrics stand as a unifying force for African Americans and tells the story of the black race.
In 1919, 20 years after being written, the NAACP made “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” the group’s official song after calling it the “negro national anthem.”
That was 12 years before the U.S. Congress adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1931.
“I think the significance of ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ is that it tells the story of African Americans, whereas other songs, like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ do not,” he said. “In fact, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ at least the final verse of that song, is considered racist.”
Recent criticism of the national anthem and protests in relation to police brutality, may have even help to raise the profile and significance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
For example, earlier this month, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., called the song a “hymn of history and hope.”
“Slavery, Jim Crow, policing, incarceration, all of these threads have permeated through the history of African-Americans,” Frederick said.
“We as a people would not have been able to get through these things and still would not be able to get through these things without a notion of hope and I think that’s what the primary message of the song is.”
Tommy Ray Davis II is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., which is the first African American Greek-lettered, intercollegiate fraternity.
Davis said the fraternity — which serves college-aged black men — was founded on principles that go hand in hand with the lyrics of the “black national anthem.”
“With Alpha, one of the things we pride ourselves on is service,” Davis said. “So, this song definitely embodies that idea of serving not only our community, but everybody.”
Ravyn Cunningham, a member of the Winthrop Vision of Prayze (WUVOP) gospel choir, said the hymn embodies a fighting spirit and that is why it is touching.
“The song lyrics mean, to me, resilience and overcoming. We as a culture and race have been through a lot of oppression and challenges,” said Cunningham.
WUVOP is a variation of the Association of Ebonites, the first organization to promote black awareness on the Winthrop campus, which featured the Ebonite Gospel Choir.
“WUVOP promotes black awareness by engaging in traditional songs and having programs like our throwback concert and partnering with other campus ministries,” said Cunningham. “Partnering with other ministries allows WUVOP to promote black culture, along with experiences from other cultures and customs, in relation to spiritual experiences.”
Frederick, Davis and Cunningham each said while the song is often played during Black History month, it needs to be acknowledged throughout the year.
Additionally, Frederick said today’s youth fails to embrace the importance of the song, because it is no longer being taught as frequently as it once was.
“I think everybody should go out and listen to it, let it resonate with you, think about what that means to you,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter if you black, white, blue, green, yellow or red, you should be able to understand the message and the significance this song has, not just for African Americans, but in this world.”