A THOUGHT FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH
In 1900, during a period in American history when Italian and Irish immigrants were regularly excoriated in the press as "invaders" and "subhuman;" when laws called "Yellow Codes"were passed in Congress to cut off Chinese immigration to America; when the last great "battle" of the so-called Indian Wars was actually the massacre of more than 200 indigenous men, women and children at a place called, Wounded Knee; and when virtually every other week a black person was lynched somewhere within the continental United States, James Weldon Johnson -the son of former slaves - penned a poem, LIFT EV'RY VOICE, to honor the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, as well as expressing the hopes and undeterred dreams of African American people as they faced forward to the dawn of the then new 20th century. The poem was soon adopted by the NAACP which had only recently been founded and soon spread to every black community in America, and not long after, James' brother, John, put the poem to music. Generations of black children sang the song at the beginning of each school day in the segregated schools of the Jim Crow South and students in the historically black colleges sang it in their choirs, at parties and before events like football games and graduation. The song was sung in churches and at funerals, hummed in hidden corners by fearful people cowering from the violence of Klan hatred. It served as a marching song during the Civil Rights Movement and resounds again and again ever more deeply into this new century. When one reads the lyric and considers the uncertain times we live in, even now, it is easy to understand why LIFT EV'RY VOICE continues to resonate:
Lift ev’ry 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 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, 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.