“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called Black national anthem, was written by 20th-century novelist/poet/songwriter James Weldon Johnson as a rallying cry for perseverance and social justice. Though it’s been performed publicly for nearly 100 years, there’s probably a lot you still don’t know about this iconic song—though if a congressman has his way, you’ll be hearing it alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the near future.
1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was originally written as a poem.
The song (the lyrics to which you can read here) was originally written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem in 1899, when the KKK was riding hard and Black people were being lynched and terrorized by Jim Crow laws in the American South. Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, is the one who put the verses to music. The anthem was first sung by 500 African American schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 12, 1900, as part of a celebration honoring Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
2. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was the official song of the NAACP.
Weldon Johnson, who wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, was a towering literary figure and a prominent voice in the battle for civil rights. He began working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1917 and was named executive secretary of the organization in 1920—a position he held for 10 years. In 1919, Johnson’s "Lift Every Voice and Sing" became the official song of the NAACP. Since that time, the anthem has been the musical inspiration for generations of Black Americans in the never-ending battle for equality and human rights.
3. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is featured in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing dramatizes how fear and resentment explode into violence in Bedford–Stuyvesant, a predominantly Black and brown Brooklyn neighborhood that used to be all white. A snippet of renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis's rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” plays at the beginning of the movie’s opening credits before transitioning into Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
4. Beyoncé introduced “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to a lot of people.
Thousands of mostly white fans heard “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” possibly for the first time, when Beyoncé belted it out at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Beyoncé’s 2019 Emmy-nominated documentary Homecoming also features her and her daughter Blue Ivy paying homage to the hymn.
5. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was performed at the White House in 2010.
The 2010 Black History Month festivities at the White House showcased President Barack Obama performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with legendary soul crooner Smokey Robinson and others onstage as part of a Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.
6. The NFL has embraced “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
In 2020, in a bid to improve its image with African Americans after the police killing of George Floyd led to a universal outcry for social justice, the National Football League (NFL) announced that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” would be played before each first game of the season for all teams. This was more than two years after the organization vowed to fine any team whose players did not stand during the national anthem.
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a video statement. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.” Additionally, a video of Alicia Keys’s rousing performance of the Black national anthem aired during the 2021 Super Bowl broadcast.
7. President Joe Biden paid tribute to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in his plan for rebuilding Black America.
President Joe Biden gave a nod to the Black national anthem by titling his proposed plan for rebuilding Black America “Lift Every Voice.” The program includes new policies for closing the racial wealth and income gaps, expansion of access to quality education and health care, and a commitment to pursuing racial justice in all matters.
8. A South Carolina congressman wants to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a companion piece to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In January 2021, congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) proposed legislation that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a companion anthem to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written by Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning lawyer from Virginia. For generations, Americans have overlooked the irony of celebrating Key, who denied freedom to other human beings yet who wrote:
"No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Clyburn believes “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is an appropriate choice for America’s most patriotic hymn because he believes it would unite Americans and acknowledge the country's entrenched racial divisions. According to Clyburn, "The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”