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James Weldon Johnson: The Man Behind the Black Anthem


James Weldon Johnson was a composer, rights activist, lawyer, writer, and politician. He penned one of the most significant songs in the black liberation struggle ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ Today, his contribution to the fight for the rights of black people has more resonance. Let’s look at the life and time of James Weldon Johnson.

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James Weldon Johnson’s Early Life

James Weldon was born on 17 June 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was raised by his mother and father at a time when segregation was rife. His parents, who were well-educated, ensured that he also received a good education. 

James studied at Edwin Stanton School and then went to Atlanta University in Georgia and graduated in 1894. Two years later, he joined Thomas Ledwith’s Law Office to study Law. In 1898, James successfully took the bar exam and became one of the few black attorneys in the United States.

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James Weldon Johnson’s Career

Despite his qualifications in law, James Weldon didn’t practice it. Instead, he worked as a Principal at his alma mater, Edwin Stanton School. He went on and engaged in other things.

In 1895, he started the Daily American but then took an interest in composing music. He did this with his brother Rosamond and sold some of their music for Broadway. 

In 1900, they were tasked with composing a song for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. This led to the making of Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which today is known as the “Black Anthem.”

The song became the anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Johnson wrote more than 200 songs. He went on to join Columbia University, where he studied literature.

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Political Pursuits

In 1906, James Weldon took up diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. He served until 1914 and turned his attention to The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Six years on, he was appointed the CEO and is credited for creating the Harlem Renaissance African-American artist community.

In 1916, he worked as a Field Secretary of the NAACP. He increased the membership and the number of branches the organization had. The following year, Johnson led the biggest march, “Silent March,” organized by an African American.

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Published Works

James Weldon Johnson produced a couple of literary works. In 1912, his book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man came out. The book got a lot of attention in 1927 when he published it under his name. By that time, he’d published another book, “The Book of American Negro Poetry.” Other books include:

After he left the NAACP, James Weldon became a professor at New York University in 1934. He passed away in 1938. 

James Weldon Johnson’s contribution to the black liberation struggle remains significant. Additionally, his pursuits in education and literature also earned him a place in history.

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