50 Years Of The Civil Rights Act: James Weldon Johnson

Jun 30, 2014

July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark legislation outlawed discrimination at the polls and in schools, workplaces and public buildings.

But it would never have made it to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s desk without the tireless efforts of civil rights activists like James Weldon Johnson, A. Phillip Randolph and Robert B. Hayling.

These three men, all with ties to the First Coast, were inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame this year.

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville on June 17, 1871. He died in a traffic accident in Wiscasset, Maine on June 26, 1938. In those 67 years, Johnson managed to cram several lifetime’s worth of work. 

James Weldon Johnson
Credit Project Gutenberg / WIkimedia Commons

He was a teacher, a principal and a college English professor. A newspaper journalist and publisher. A U.S. foreign diplomat, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a novelist, a poet and a songwriter.

In fact, it was his brilliance as a wordsmith coupled with his younger brother’s talent as a composer that produced one of the most recognized, powerful and enduring anthems of the civil rights movement.

It was the year 1900, says Adonnica Toler with the Ritz Theater and Museum in Jacksonville.

“James Weldon Johnson was principal of Stanton School at the time and they were going to have a birthday celebration for Abraham Lincoln and James was writing a poem or a speech,” she said.

But he wasn’t having much luck. Enter brother John.

“John Rosamond by 1900 was an acclaimed actor, musician, singer and he was touring Europe. So he decided to come home and spend time with the family before he went back to New York and the Broadway stage. And James was struggling with these words and so John said, 'Man, why don’t we just write a song?'”

So that’s what they did.

“While James worked on the words, John worked on the music. And they just went back and forth: James wandering the porch and John sitting at their parents’ piano.”

On February 12, 500 students at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida performed "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing" in celebration of what would have been President Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday.

Time passed and the Johnson brothers forgot about their song, but the children and the teachers at Stanton kept it alive until it had spread far beyond the city where it was created.

“And James discovered that when he came south, establishing southern branches of the NAACP. And whichever city he went to, people were singing that song and so the organization decided they should adopt it as the black national hymn,” Toler said.

But why has it endured? What is it about this music, these words, that, more than 114 years later, "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing" continues to inspire?

“It says to me that, no matter what challenges that I’m facing today, they’re nothing compared to what my ancestors went through who were enslaved, who lived through segregation, Toler said "I can walk into a public restaurant or use a public bathroom. I can go to the mall when I want. I can sit on any part of the plane I want. So when I give tours to students, I tell them we really don’t have an excuse for not doing our best and being our best.”  

A group of children from Mine, Yours and Ours Child Care and Learning Center on North University Boulevard visited the Ritz Theater and Museum recently where, standing shoulder to shoulder on the stage, they sang the song they all knew by heart.

WATCH: Children from Jacksonville's Mine, Yours and Ours Child Care and Learning Center sing "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing"

You can follow Cyd Hoskinson on Twitter @cydwjctnews.