Lift Every Voice and Sing

Martin Luther King delivering his April 3, 1968 “Mountaintop” speech

Spiritual Sunday

As today is Martin Luther King’s actual birthday and as he was a preacher, I examine the religious imagery that runs through James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which functions as the African American anthem. It is included in the Episcopal hymnal and doubtless that of other denominations.

The poem begins with thanking God for having granted freedom to former slaves. Singing rises to God like the incense from burnt sacrifices, the “rolling sea” may be the Red Sea that Moses parted, and the stony road is the 40 years in the desert. The “wine of the world” that distracts us, meanwhile, refers to the golden calf, and the chastening rod, an image that appears multiple times in the Bible, is a sign of God’s love: as Proverbs notes (13:24) “he that loves his son chastens him early.” We may disagree with this as good childrearing practice, but it helps Johnson make sense of the horrors of slavery.

Johnson, writing in 1899, couldn’t have seen how much more traveling and dying lay ahead. Yet the story uplifts because it provides hope and reassurance. King pulled the same lesson out of Exodus, as can be seen in the speech he delivered the day before he was killed. Knowing that there was a good chance that he would die—he was receiving hundreds of death threats every day—he conjures up the image of Moses, gazing down upon the Promised Land he was never to enter:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Here’s Johnson’s poem, which was set to music six years later by his brother:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 chast’ning 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 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.

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.

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