Lift Every Voice and Let Freedom Ring

By Henderson, George | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Lift Every Voice and Let Freedom Ring


Henderson, George, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Standing in front of approximately 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the final speech of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His 17-minute "I Have a Dream," woven almost instantly into the fabric of black-white relations in the United States, ranks as the best oratory of the 20th century, according to a survey of redoubtable scholars of American public rhetoric. King's urging to "let freedom ring" sounded familiar to most African-Americans from the South and many from the North, not only because of the pastor's entreaty for civil rights for everyone, not just whites, but also because of the echoes he made to an earlier hymn that sought to "ring with the harmonies of liberty" by a likeminded precursor.

Blacks had been primed for King's "I Have a Dream" by James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing." In fact, they had been singing it for most of their lives: as students in predominantly segregated schools and as adults at civil rights meetings and in black civic clubs. Thus, when King said, "So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition" and with "faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope," they might have recalled Johnson's "song full of the faith that the dark past has taught": that "Stony the road we trod / Bitter the chastening rod, / Felt in days when hope unborn had died." When King declared, "And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back," they could have remembered Johnson's plea, "Let us march on till victory is won." And when King intoned, "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges," they perhaps thought of Johnson's lines, "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."

Several accounts support the hypothesis that King drew from Johnson, consciously or unconsciously. Novelist Guy Johnson (no relation) talked about the two visionaries in an essay in Julian Bond and Sondra Wilson's 2000 book Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem, 100 Years, 100 Voices. He described attending a civil rights meeting held by a local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in New York City in the early 1960s and coordinated by his mother, the author Maya Angelou, at which King came to speak, raise funds, and conduct a strategy session: "The meeting was convened with a prayer and 'Lift Every Voice and Sing.'" In another essay from the Bond and Wilson collection, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said that when he was a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Term., and prominent civil rights speakers such as King, lawyer Thurgood Marshall and activist Roy Wilkins visited the campus, "'Lift Every Voice and Sing' was always sung following these uplifting and informative gatherings. ... Without [what was also called] the Negro National Anthem and certain other songs, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings."

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Writer James Baldwin observed in C. Eric Lincoln's 1970 book, Martin Luther King, In: A Profile, that the secret to King's speaking style "lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect--indeed, he insists on it." Johnson displayed a similar ability in his poetry. In Bond and Wilson's book, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka argued that "lift Every Voice' must be acknowledged as James Weldon Johnson and [his composer/ brother J.] Rosamond Johnson's greatest work . …

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