“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is a deeply religious song originally written to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The writer was the principal of a school who was asked to speak at the birthday memorial event. His brother composed the music. A choir of 500 children first sang the song in 1900 at their school. The song spread quickly and was widely sung, primarily in black communities and settings.
The National Association for Advancement of Colored People officially adopted the song in the wake of the racial violence of the Red Summer of 1919 as the “Negro National Anthem”. It is a song expressing hope and love for the country as well as a deep love for God and His faithfulness.
“God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has 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,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath the hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
True to our native land.”
– James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” 3rd verse)
The writer of the song resisted the term “anthem” for his hymn, as there was just one national anthem, Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”. Ironically, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not officially made the national anthem until 1931, although it had been in use in some capacities since 1892 and President Wilson had ordered it played at military occasions beginning in 1916.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” has made its way into the broader culture as well; in recent years Beyonce performed an except of the song during her performance at Coachella, and it was quoted by the Reverend Joseph Lowery at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. Most recently, the NFL announced that it plans to play the song before gameplay during the first week of the season.