Wednesday, June 22, 2011

James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

The Florida Times Union, guest column, "James Weldon Johnson's song the start of a legacy," by Jack Gailliard (a Jacksonville attorney).

On a brisk winter morning in early 1900, a young Jacksonville native paced the porch of his LaVilla home searching for inspiration.

He and his brother had decided to compose a song as their contribution to the upcoming Abraham Lincoln birthday celebration.

The first stanza was complete. It was now his burden to find words to fit two more stanzas into the meter of the first.

Working on the words

At this point he had abandoned pen and paper and was simply, as he would later recall in his autobiography, "repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all the agony and ecstasy of creating."

Working his way through the last stanza, "I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet's ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment - that sense of serene joy - which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experience:"

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Those 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.

Lincoln's birthday arrived, and 500 school children sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in public celebration.

The brothers moved on to careers taking them far from Jacksonville, leaving their song to its own fate.

Adopted by NAACP

The children continued singing their new song. Later, it was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" continues to be sung as both inspiration and aspiration of the African-American experience. Yet, it was far from the only music composed by lyricist James Weldon Johnson and his younger brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

During the previous summer, Jim Johnson, as he was known to friends, had taken his summer break as principal of Stanton High School and, together with Rosamond, traveled to New York City with an opera they had composed. Although it was never staged, their opera opened doors to theater performers, composers and producers, Oscar Hammerstein amongst them.

Before returning to Jacksonville in the fall, the brothers had struck a partnership with Bob Cole, who "could write a play, stage it and play a part." Commencing with their reunion the following summer, this trio would combine to write and produce a series of musical comedy hits.

A new direction

At the end of their successful Broadway years, Rosamond Johnson and Cole continued their music careers in other venues, while Jim Johnson's path took several brilliant tangents. From educator to lawyer, to diplomat, to novelist, to poet, to godfather and anthologist of the Harlem Renaissance, he left an indelible mark.

His most vital role, however, lay in the nascent civil rights movement. He became the first member of his race to head the NAACP, which he transformed from a small, regional organization into a strong, national force.

In 1925, he founded its most effective weapon, the Legal Defense Fund.

It was through the fund that falsely accused African-Americans found Clarence Darrow and other attorneys by their side. The fund, in the hands of lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, relentlessly attacked Jim Crow laws, finally ending all school segregation.

On that lofty pinnacle of transformative civil rights achievement - not only for one racial group but whose precedents remain in the service of any devalued citizen - James Weldon Johnson stands among the likes of Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph (another champion of racial equality with Jacksonville connections.)

Honest Abe, the supreme wordsmith of American presidents, would have rejoiced.

(source: Florida Times Union, Jack Gailliard is a Jacksonville attorney.)


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