- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

"Lift Every Voice and Sing," which black songwriter James Weldon Johnson wrote for Lincoln's birthday celebration in 1900, has become the unofficial black anthem.

Its lyrics reflect a tenacity and determination born from the black experience: "Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us."

Sometimes sung following "The Star Spangled Banner," the song is the subject of a book, "Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem," recently published by Random House.

Editors Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson offer essays from 100 American writers, politicians, educators and performers on the subject of race.

Book contributors ranging from President Clinton to rap artists and descendants of black leaders honor the fact that the song has endured for 100 years and has inspired many Americans, Miss Wilson said.

"African Americans consider this song so sacred that they immediately stand when the first chord is struck," she said.

Lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr., famous for his defense of O.J. Simpson, wrote that he first heard the tune as a child sitting in a Little Union Baptist Church service in Shreveport, La.

"Its lyrics have remained with me throughout my life," he said.

The melody fortified the civil rights movement of the 1960s, has been sung at funerals of the leaders of the civil rights movement and was heard at the Million Man and Million Family marches. It is the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Turning a deaf ear to the restrictive racial atmosphere of the time, James Weldon Johnson songwriter, author, NAACP president and U.S. consul to Nicaragua and Venezuela created the song with his musician brother, J. Rosamond Johnson.

"The lines of the song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children," James Weldon Johnson said in 1935.

Johnson wanted the song to be called a hymn instead of an anthem, which he considered to be a divisive term, Miss Wilson said.

"As head of the NAACP, he felt he could not promote an integration philosophy if we were to be divided. He felt a nation could only have one anthem," she added.

Whatever the label, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has been "pasted into Bibles, schoolbooks and hearts," as the book jacket says.

All athletic events and ceremonies at Howard University begin with the song, says university choir conductor James Weldon Norris.

"We feel this song represents our ethnic pride and we will never forget from where we have come," the music history professor said.

Mr. Norris, who was named after the composer, said blacks sing all three verses of the hymn with great pride and feeling. They learn the words as children and sing them throughout their lives.

By contrast, the professor said, it is hard to find a "true American" who can sing the second verse from memory of "The Star Spangled Banner."

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