Most of the people who are taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement or even those who are against the movement have no idea that there is a Black National Anthem. The song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was brought to the fore on the night of September 10 in the Kansas City during the season-opening games of the National Football League. The decision to start the season with the Black Anthem was taken to remind the struggle of the Black people to come to the mainstream, in the wake of recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
The song Lift Every Voice and Sing was sung by Alicia Keys during the occasion and was heard by millions of Americans, most of them, for the first time. The century-old song has a powerful history and is more than relevant in today's world where people are gathering to fight for equality and justice.
1) Makers of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"
The hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written and composed by the Johnson brothers who played an important role in the civil rights movement. James Weldon Johnson wrote the song and John Rosamond Johnson composed music for the same. Popularly known as Johnson brothers from Jacksonville in Florida, they had no clue that the song will become the Black National Anthem when they wrote or composed it.
Elder brother James Weldon Johnson, born in 1871, was a writer and poet. He is also known as the first American leader of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People (NAACP). The younger brother John Rosamond Johnson, born in 1873, was a musician trained at the New England Conservatory of Music. He worked on songs from vaudeville and traditional theater to spirituals. But he did not limit his musical talent to the career but also composed songs that made people feel and understand the deeply-rooted African American traditions.
2) The First Appearance of the Song
The song was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899. When he wrote the song, he was working as the principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. It was composed by the younger Johnson and was ready for its debut in 1900. The song was sung for the first time by 500 children of the school during an event to celebrate the Black history.
3) Song Spreads Fast and Wide
According to James Weldon Johnson, shortly after the song was debuted, the brothers shifted to New York from Florida. With the passing of time the song too was forgotten by them. But the children in Jacksonville kept singing it. They even sang it in other schools during events. After a decade, these children who sang the song became teachers and taught it to their students. Thus even without the knowledge of the writer and composer it was sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. The elder brother wrote this detail in 1935 while recalling about his collection of his poems.
4) NAACP Proclamation of Black National Anthem
The song was recognized publicly by author Booker T. Washington in 1905 and it spread across the country. The NAACP declared Lift Every Voice And Sing as the Black National Anthem in 1919, nine years after it was debuted. It can be noted that the President of United States of America, Herbert Hoover had declared Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem of the country only in 1931. The Black National Anthem had made its official debut [as an anthem] 12 years before U.S. had the official national anthem.
5) Adaptation by Popular Singers from Melba Moore to Beyonce
Singer Melba Moore was the first celebrity to release a recording of Lift Every Voice And Sing in 1990. The song featured Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder. Parts of the song got a mention from Rev. Joseph Lowery during benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. The next time entire America heard the song was when Beyoncé performed it at Coachella in 2018.
As the elder Johnson recalled it, "Someone heard it, was moved by it, and kept on singing." This was again proved in the National Football League in Kansas City.