Till Victory is Won
In Recognition of Black History Month 2021
Sandra J. Evers-Manly, President and Founder | Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center
As I examine Black History Month 2021, and what may be accomplished during the shortest month of the year, I am reminded of a special song that continues to motivate generations since the late 1890’s. First commissioned as a poem, “Life Every Voice and Sing” was written by James Weldon Johnson, Principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. It was then set to music in 1905 by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson a composer who trained at the New England Conservatory of Music. These influential and talented brothers worked together all of their lives, both in show business and as critical players in the civil rights movement. They believed that “artistic and cultural excellence was key to Black Advancement in America.” I believe that we have all witnessed many examples of this cultural excellence from the past as well as today.
As we are reminded this month (and should be all year) another such example of artistic and cultural excellence key to Black advancement during that time, was the impact of the indomitable Soprano Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones known as “Black Patti”. From the years 1897-1915, Miss Jones was the highest-paid African-American performer of her time. Miss Jones performed at the White House for various presidents such as: Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt — as well as the British Royal Family. Of note, for three of her White House performances, Jones had to enter the building through the back. She was finally allowed to enter through the front door for her performance for President Roosevelt. Miss Jones would employ as many as 40 black entertainers in her “Black Patti Troubadours” for more than two decades.
When James wrote the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, it was meant to be a prayer of thanksgiving for faith and freedom. For the promise of better days ahead, of unity and a collaborative purpose while carefully and purposefully notating the trials of a people. However, the poetry represents only half of the power of the song.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise, High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Until brother J. Rosamond added the music, the song was not complete. You see as the historians have discovered; the melodies match the text. “Lift every voice” always ascends when you sing it, to lift you up. The middle passages that speak to our trials and dark past, are gloomy and minor, mournful keys but arrive on an uplifting key to proclaim an affirmative statement of hope.
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.
At the time that this song was written, reconstruction had largely failed. Although there were achievements by some Blacks, the hopes and progress of a people rested on Black professionals, educators, and businessmen, like the Johnson Brothers and Miss Joyner Jones. Their rise belonged to all of the Black community as a sense of pride and inspiration. This song, performed in that segregated school room, by 500 children in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905 came to symbolize the musical icon that still to this day visualizes a people’s history; infused inspiration, faith filled vision, and a resolute hope. Unknown to the brothers at the time, was how the song would embed itself in the minds and hearts of the school children who performed that day.
“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country … The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” -James Weldon Johnson.
In reviewing this song, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted as the “National Black Anthem” and as their “Official” song in 1919, I am amazed at how relevant the lyrics remain to this day. The second verse applies very aptly to the economic uncertainty, civil unrest, police brutality, rise of white supremacy, threat of voter suppression, and our current health disparities made worse by the COVID–19 pandemic, makes you want to “throw up your hands and holler!” And… yes, we are weary, we are tired. We have been in this same place before as the song states…
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening 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?
However, just as we stand today for future generations, we stand on the shoulders of those who have brought us through and to this time – better than the past, but miles to go. Our heroes and sheroes such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Daisey Bates, Bayard Rustin, C.T. Vivian and others brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Which desegregated the schools, theaters, housing, offices and so much more and would lead us the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Those courageous, intelligent, and steadfast men and women who committed themselves to the fight for the basic human rights promised to all of under the Constitution. And for our God-given human dignity, which was done with the greatest amount of sacrifice, enduring death of both young and old, beatings, hosing; while fighting peacefully with sit-ins, marches, législation, unity, coalition building and more. Through words, music, serving the poor and hope. Just as our forebearers, we cannot grow weary. We cannot and should not forget the horrific and unjust killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others who have died as a result of police brutality. We must continue to affirm that “Black Lives Matter” as we Lift our voices with conviction — as in times before — repeatedly to renew our hope and to press on toward victory each time we sing that hymn of hope.
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 a bright star is cast.
Lastly, where would we be without faith? Hope I believe is born of a great faith. Faith in God, faith in your fellow man/woman/child and faith in yourself. In our most fervent and reverent acknowledgment of a glorious history of incredible men and women, known and unknown, I urge each of us to pause to honor Black History Month. In the manner you are accustom, give a word of thanksgiving for those who came before. Who carved out a path toward a better future for Black Americans and in doing so, made all of America better.
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.
On January 13, 2021, House Majority Whip Congressman James Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress put forward a proposal. Mr. Clyburn proposed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” be given a special place as a “national hymn” alongside the official US anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Clyburn believes it would help unite the country in a time of reckoning with its long history of racial turmoil. “It would say to people, ‘You aren’t singing a separate national anthem, you are singing the country’s national hymn. The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.” — Congressman Clyburn
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.
Today, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is more than just a song, a hymn, the “Official song of the NAACP, the “National Black Anthem.” It is still a hymn full of the musically cultural architecture of Black classical and jazz music. With a deep history of Black pride, and a stirring cry to uplift and empower. It is firmly embedded in African American Culture. Pop artists from Beyoncé to Alicia Keys have performed it at high-profile concerts introducing the song to new generations and cultures world-wide. The song has always enjoyed a global appeal because of its pledge of unity, promise and proclamation, combined with its musical and inspirational rallying cry for people who fight for equality and justice.
I am proud to reaffirm my faith, my hope, and my commitment to continue to “Lift My Voice” to proclaim the excellence and influence of the African American culture and personas in the American narrative. To proclaim that Black History is World History to be shared, taught, and honored 365 days of the year.
As we reflect on the past let us remember those who have paved a way that is both wide and deep for us. A way that so many have watered with tears, nourished with blood, built with inventions, a way decorated with artistry, ruled by governance and business, a way powered by raw energy, embellished with theater, TV, and film, and fueled with hope. Those who have provided both aspiration and inspiration, encouraging us rise up and to march on with HOPE in our hearts. To meet the challenges of today while forging a path for generations to come.
Please, go out and set a path for light and love. Deepen the waters of justice and let equality flow down until every woman, man and child see justice and liberty for all.
Till Victory is Won!