Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' Beyoncé sang it at Coachella. Kim Weston sang it at Wattstax. The song often called the "black national anthem" is still with us — in part because the struggle it describes never went away.
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Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing'

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Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing'

Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing'

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NOEL KING, HOST:

"Lift Every Voice And Sing" is a song that has a lot of meaning for many African-Americans. For generations, it's been sung in schools, in churches and in dozens of recordings and landmark performances. Motown's Kim Weston sang it in front of almost 100,000 people in 1972 at the Wattstax concert in Los Angeles.

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KIM WESTON: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...

KING: Singer Melba Moore released an all-star version with Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick and others in 1990.

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MELBA MOORE: (Singing) Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening sky...

KING: And this year, Beyonce sang it at Coachella.

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BEYONCE: (Singing) High as the listening sky...

KING: What is it about "Lift Every Voice And Sing" that speaks to people so much that it's been called the black national anthem? NPR's Claudette Lindsay-Habermann has the story for our series American Anthem.

CLAUDETTE LINDSAY-HABERMANN, BYLINE: The Morgan State University Choir opens all its concerts with "Lift Every Voice And Sing."

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: At the Oxford Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the entire congregation rose as one. They sang along, beaming with pride.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing - let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Lift every voice and sing.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: Eric Conway is the director of the Morgan State University Choir.

ERIC CONWAY: What a great way to begin a concert, asking everyone in the audience to actually lift up their voice as well. We all have a voice.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: Shannon Patterson was in the audience. She has been singing "Lift Every Voice And Sing" since she was in elementary school.

SHANNON PATTERSON: We were proud. And so we could lift our voices and sing in spite of the difficulties and the situations.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: This song is about transcending those difficulties. The first verse opens with a command to optimism, praise and freedom - lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty - lift every voice and sing.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: The second verse reminds us to never forget the suffering and the obstacles of the past - stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Stony the road we trod - sing a song - bitter the chastening rod - sing a song - felt in the days when hope - sing a song - unborn had died. Sing a song - yet with a steady...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: The third and final stanza is about the challenges of the future. They are to be met with perseverance, courage, faith and trust in God. Keep us forever in thy path, we pray.

MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY CHOIR: (Singing) Keep us forever in thy path, we pray.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: "Lift Every Voice And Sing" was written at a pivotal time in the United States, when Jim Crow was replacing slavery and African-Americans were searching for an identity. Author and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the words as a poem. His brother John set it to music. Two key events led to it first being named the "Negro National Anthem." In 1905, Booker T. Washington endorsed it. In 1919, it became the official song of the NAACP. Derrick Johnson is the NAACP's president.

DERRICK JOHNSON: It spoke of the history, the dark journey African-Americans and, for that matter, many Africans in the diaspora struggled through to get to a place to have hope.

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WESTON: (Singing) Sing a song...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: Here is Kim Weston again from the 1972 concert Wattstax.

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WESTON: (Singing) ...Full of the hope that the present has brought us...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: "Lift Every Voice And Sing" became a rallying cry for black communities, especially in the South - but not just for black communities. Timothy Askew is an English professor at Clark Atlanta University and a scholar of "Lift Every Voice And Sing."

TIMOTHY ASKEW: Even during days of segregation, there were Southern white churches, people from those churches, who wrote to James Weldon Johnson and who said, we're singing that song you call a black national anthem.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: The song spread around the world - Japan, South Africa. Today "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is included in nearly 30 different Christian hymnals, both black and white. Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed it.

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MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR: (Singing) God of our weary years, God of our silent tears...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: The entire nation heard lyrics from "Lift Every Voice And Sing" in 2009, when civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery gave the benediction at President Barack Obama's first inauguration.

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JOSEPH LOWERY: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears...

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: Shana Redmond is a professor at UCLA who studies music, race and politics. She wrote a book on black anthems and says, this one tells us the struggle continues for voting rights, equal education and against police brutality. When a broader audience hears "Lift Every Voice And Sing," they are made aware of those struggles.

SHANA REDMOND: It continues to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe something will change and we will make that possible by marching, by being present, by collectivizing.

LINDSAY-HABERMANN: The reach of "Lift Every Voice And Sing" continues to expand. When Beyonce sang it at Coachella, she knew the mostly white audience didn't know the history of the black national anthem. But, she told Vogue magazine, they understood the feeling it gave them.

Claudette Lindsay-Habermann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEYONCE: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...

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