James Weldon Johnson Poem Sung at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) the congregation sang the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. [1] Here are five comments about this hymn.

James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson

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.[2]

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.

John Rosamond Johnson
John Rosamond Johnson

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.[3]

Third, here are the actual lyrics:[4]

“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.

=====================================

[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, Wikipedia.

[3] Lift Every Voice and Sing, Wikipedia; Stanton College Preparatory School, Wikipedia; Booker T. Washington, Wikipedia; J. Rosamond Johnson, Wikipedia.

[4] Lyrics, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Hymnary.org.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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