FEBRUARY 12, 1900

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson Credit: Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932/Wikipedia

Five hundred Black students at a Jacksonville, Florida, school sang a new song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Their principal, James Weldon Johnson, had written the words, and his brother had finished the tune in time to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The brothers moved on to New York City, but the children kept on singing the new song and soon others joined them.

“Within 20 years, it was being sung over the South,” soon gaining the nickname, the “Negro National Anthem,” Johnson recalled. He became executive secretary for the NAACP, a crusader against lynchings and an important voice for the voiceless, coining the phrase “Red Summer” to describe the 1919 summer filled with race massacres.

But he remains best known for the song, which talks of the exodus from brutal slavery to the promised land. The lyrics continue to resonate today:

“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.”

The song continues to be recorded by top celebrities, including Beyoncé, and is now being played at NFL games, alongside the National Anthem.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.