First, the lyrics for this hymn were written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), an African-American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist, including serving as the executive secretary (1920-1930) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also was an active poet, novelist and anthologist of black culture’s poems and spirituals in the Harlem Renaissance.
Second, these lyrics were written by Johnson as a poem for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday on February 12, 1900, at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where Johnson was its principal. The honored guest at the School that day was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a famous African- American educator, author, orator, and advisor to U.S. presidents.
In 1905, the poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954), an African-American composer and singer, later prominent in the Harlem Renaissance. The song became widely popular and known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted.
Third, here are the actual lyrics:
“1 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.
2 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 people 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.
3 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.”
Fourth, the hymn’s words and music of the first verse are joyous and hopeful: “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” The third verse returns to this joyous and hopeful theme.
At the same time, however, there is an undercurrent of pain drawn from the African-American experience. “The dark past” appears without elaboration in the first verse while the third verse talks about “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.” The second verse provides some of those painful details: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. . . over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered . . . from the gloomy past.”
Fifth, I give thanks for the inclusion of this hymn in the worship service on Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday at Westminster. I also give thanks for the witness of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson and my taking the time to re-read the lyrics, to do the research reflected in this post and to reflect on the meaning of those lyrics.
 Lyrics, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Hymnary.org.