James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. Though he is best known for his writing, he was gifted with many talents. He was a poet, novelist, songwriter, anthologist, and newspaper publisher. He was also an educator (high school principal at age 23, and for many years a college professor), an attorney (the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar since the end of Reconstruction), a diplomat (appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. counsel to Venezuela, and later to Nicaragua), politician (lobbying unsuccessfully for a law to outlaw lynching), early civil rights activist (Field Secretary for the NAACP), and one of the prime movers of the Harlem Renaissance. His writings include the novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), and his best-known work, God’s Trombones (1927), a group of dialect sermons in verse. This book was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this trip that ignited his interest in the African-American folk tradition.
Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to write lyrics for songs written by his brother Rosamond (1873-1954). The two collaborated on over 200 songs for the Broadway stage. The brothers also worked together on the pioneering anthologies Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and American Negro Spirituals (1925, 1926). Their most famous original song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1900 for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton High School in Jacksonville, Florida where Johnson was principal. Johnson said that after the brothers published the song, they let it “pass out of [their] minds.” But the song was remembered by students, many of whom became teachers and taught it to their students throughout the South. It became so well-known and loved that twenty years later it was adopted by the NAACP as the “Negro National Hymn.” It’s popularity has continued to grow, and it is now found in many hymnals (Lutheran Book of Worship #562). Johnson died in 1938.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lift ev’ry 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 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.
The music is as powerful as the words. For a video of this powerful hymn go to:
II Chronicles 7:14 — If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 — I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
Psalm 33:10-12 — The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.
Almighty God, bless our nation that it may be a blessing to the world: Grant us ideals and aspirations which are in line with your will; grant us sound government and just laws; grant us good education; grant us justice in our relations with each other; grant us a spirit of service for others and devotion to you; preserve us from all national wrongs and sins, and keep ever before us the faith and the trust of our nation’s founders. O God, make this a land of Christian homes where you are ever loved and served and glorified. We pray in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN. –adapted from the United Lutheran Church Hymnal, 1917