The multi-talented James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to commemorate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. His brother later set the poem to music and with time it became known as the Black National Anthem.
I first heard the song when the group Acapella included it in their “America” album in 1992. It instantly became my favorite patriotic hymn. The song has been performed by so many artists, but I still think the version I first heard is one of the best—probably because it touched my heart so deeply.
I have learned firsthand that it is possible to grow up both poor and privileged, and the concept of freedom means something far different to someone who did not grow up privileged. Maybe that is why this particular song resonates on such a powerful level. It was conceived by those who dreamed of freedom.
Independence Day arrives tomorrow in this strange and conflicted land, and I confess that my heart is pretty strange and conflicted right now, too. But as this celebration of freedom arrives, and as I reflect on these lyrics, among many options I choose to raise my voice in song and join the chorus.
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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 fathers 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.
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.