james weldon johnson bob cole john rosamond johnson l

James Weldon Johnson (center) with friend Bob Cole (left) and brother Rosamond

On the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in the year 1900, a group of young men in the city of Jacksonville, Florida arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. James Weldon Johnson and his brother James Rosamond Johnson presented to the group through a choir 500 Colored school children a song they composed for the occasion: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” That combination of a vibrant lyric and stirring music later forged itself into the consciousness of a marginalized people, as the, “Negro National Anthem” here performed by Melba Moore Featuring Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The Clark Sisters, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Howard Hewett, Take 6, Stephanie Mills, BeBe & CeCe Winans and Jeffrey Osborne:

Laudatory paean to the promise of America have been penned by bards such as Francis Scott Key; Walt Whitman; Carl Sandburg; Julia Ward Howe, Katharine Lee Bates; and Emma Lazarus. The lack of epidermal melanin provided all of these poets with direct access to that American promise. The exception of Emma Lazarus, however, was conditioned by the fact that her people were in that terrible time warp between the flight of Moses and the blight of Hitler. None of the hymns of praise of these writers, however -- with the still-present sting of barbarous treatment before and after bondage -- no truer faith in the promise of America an exceed the tone of forgiveness and hope as it is excruciatingly rung through the words and music of; “Lift Every Voice and Sing, which lyrics bear the weight of exile, bondage cruelty and hope.

James Weldon Johnson poured into those lyrics the blood, sweat and convictions of a people determined to convert a part of the damned into a future of. “I am!”

As an aside, considering the virulent antipathy to African Americans later to be exhibited by President Woodrow Wilson, it is remarkable that Present Theodore Roosevelt appointed James Weldon Johnson as Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua

Following are the lyrics to, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Lift every voice and sing

Till 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 till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening 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 through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who hast by Thy might

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand.

True to our God,

True to our native land.


In 1985 Miller High Life asked Deborah McDuffie to come up with a "meaningful" project for Black History Month. She decided to arrange and record a celebratory contemporary version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing". She called friends Al Green and Deniece Williams who agreed to sing the duet, backed by Patti Austin, Roberta Flack, Melba Moore and Ms McDuffie. The band consisted of the studio musicians who made up John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd's Blues Brothers Band, along with other notable musicians, including the late great Yogi Horton and jazz legend Jon Faddis. Leon Pendarvis penned the charts and was Musical Director. Husband and wife Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee provided the voice-over narration for the commercials. Recorded in New York at Clinton Studios, it started out as a jingle but ended up a full length recording.

Curtis W. Long

Curtis W. Long

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