Lift Every Voice and Sing

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of those hymns I regularly have a hard time getting through without choking up. Once referred to as the “Negro National Anthen,” it became, along with “We Shall Overcome,” a signature song of protest and hope during the Civil Rights Movement. And while the challenges faced by African-Americans are not my direct experience as a white male who has enjoyed significant privilege, I find the mixture of pain and hope, adversity and courage described so incredibly moving and always feel drawn closer to the causes of justice and civil rights when I sing it.

It was written originally as a poem by principal James Weldon Johnson for five hundred school children of the segregated Stanton School to recite in honor of Booker T. Washington when Washington came to visit the school in 1900. Five years later, Johnson’s brother John set it to music. Since then, it has become a powerful song employed when we need hope, courage, and a vision of a different and promised America. Along the way it’s also become a mainstay of hymnals in mainline congregations.

I share it this morning as the poem for this week because it came to mind several times while listening to news reports of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. You’ve likely read or heard similar news reports to those I have, so I don’t need to go into detail here, except to say it is so dispiriting to feel once again that despite all the advances of the Civil Rights movement and despite the fact that we have an African-American President serving in the White House, the level of inequity between peoples of different races and ethnicities in our country still seems so broad. Stony the road we trod…and still tread.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by our inability to see people as different from us as fellow sisters and brothers. We tend to prefer what we know and fear those who appear different. Even Jesus, in the gospel that will be read in thousands of congregations tomorrow, had to be pushed to realize just how broad and inclusive was and is God’s kingdom. And so tomorrow many of us will gather and pray for those caught up in the events unfolding in Ferguson, for the family of Michael Brown, and for all those held down by systems of oppression around our nation and globe. And that’s all well and good or, in the old words, meet, right, and salutary. But we also need to do more. We need to take a stand against oppression and with those oppressed. We need to write leaders to voice our convictions, vote with our pocketbooks, seek ways to help those who are discriminated against, and more. I don’t know what this all will look like, but I do know that the tears that often well up in my eyes when singing Johnson’s powerful hymn are not enough. And I believe there are lots of people around me of all different races and religions who might have ideas of what we can do together if I only ask.

So let’s do that. Let’s read Johnson’s poem, let’s sing the hymn it became, let’s pray for God’s mighty hand to work for us and through us so that all are treated equitably, and let’s start talking to each other about race relations, one of those things we somehow got hoodwinked into thinking we couldn’t talk about, so that we may take action that is true both to our God and native land.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

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.
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 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?
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.

by James Weldon Johnson, 1900.

Note: Preachers who want help on addressing the events in Ferguson in their sermons can find several useful reflections, including one by my new colleague Karyn Wiseman, at a page set up by the Odyssey Network.