What are the lyrics to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, and what is the song’s history?

11 February 2022, 16:42 | Updated: 11 February 2022, 16:46

Alicia Keys performs Lift Every Voice and Sing
Alicia Keys performs Lift Every Voice and Sing. Picture: Getty

By Siena Linton

Also known as ‘the Black national anthem’, the hymn will be performed for the second time in Super Bowl history this Sunday.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a hymn written by two brothers in the early 1900s in response to the struggles faced by African Americans following Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States until 1965.

The hymn, which holds historical significance to many African Americans, was performed at the Super Bowl for the first time in 2021. As part of the pre-game show to the largest US sporting event of the year, a recording of Alicia Keys and the FAMU Concert Choir performing the song was played out, alongside performances of ‘America the Beautiful’ and the American national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’

This year, the gospel duo Mary Mary will perform the anthem before kickoff, accompanied by the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Sisters Erica Campbell and Trecina ‘Tina’ Atkins-Campbell are best known for their hit single ‘Shackles (Praise You)’ from the 2000 album Thankful, which earned them their first of five Grammy awards to date.

Read more: The 8 most memorable performances of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ of all time

J. Rosamond Johnson (left) with singer Taylor Gordon
J. Rosamond Johnson (left) with singer Taylor Gordon. Picture: Alamy

What is the history behind ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’?

With words by the American writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, and music written by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, the pair initially wrote the song in 1900 to celebrate the birthday of the late 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

It was taught to 500 school children in Jacksonville, Florida, who sang it at the birthday celebrations. The song slipped from the Johnson brothers’ memories after they moved across the country to New York, but Black communities in the South continued to sing the hymn and share it with others, and it rapidly gained popularity.

Around 20 years later, the NAACP began to promote the hymn as ‘the Black national anthem’ and it was widely used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement in America throughout the 1950s and 60s. With lyrics that speak of faith and freedom, paying homage to the endurances of their ancestors, the hymn is a hopeful look to a future of equality.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has a historical and meaningful place in the hearts of many Black Americans. As Jon Batiste, leader of the band Stay Human, has said, the hymn “connects us to the history of all the people who we stand on the shoulders of – who have marched and fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy and that we’re trying to improve upon.”

Read more: US congressman files bill to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ new national hymn

The last century has seen an abundance of significant appearances for the hymn. Acclaimed writer Maya Angelou recalled it being sung during her eighth-grade graduation ceremony in her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and James Brown quoted lyrics from the song as part of his performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ ahead of the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975, which inspired the film Rocky the following year.

Lyrics from the song were also incorporated into Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and in 2018 Beyoncé sang the hymn during her ground-breaking headline performance at the Coachella music festival in California.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the ensuing protests and demonstrations held nationwide and echoed across the globe, the hymn received further public attention. It has since been incorporated into several sporting events, including NASCAR and the NFL, where it has been performed since 2021 as part of the ever-popular Super Bowl event which marks the end of the American football season.

What are the lyrics to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’?

Lift every voice and sing,
’Til 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 ’til 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 died.
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,
’Til 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.