Lift Every Voice and Sing

In honor of yesterday’s historic election, I’m delighted to share this poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).

Lift every voice and sing
Till 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 till victory is won.


At last week’s annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, the 700-person strong Occupational Health and Safety Section honored five individuals for their dedication to protecting and advancing workers’ rights to healthy and safe workplaces.  The OHS Section’s Alice Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement was conferred on David Kotelchuck, PhD, MPH, CIH, who shared this lovely Lift Every Voice and Sing poem with the audience.  In his speech accepting the award, Dr. Kotelchuck spoke movingly about growing up after WWII in Jim Crow (segregated) Baltimore, MD:

“I never had the opportunity – from K through 12 – to go to school with an African-American or Caribbean-American student.  Only at college at Johns Hopkins did I have an African-American classmate, a fellow — Tony Adona — from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. And in those pinched, oppressive times when we wanted to go on a double date together we had to travel with our friends an hour or more to Washington, DC simply to sit down in a theater of our choice and have a meal together at a restaurant.”

On this fine autumn morning, November 5, 2008, we live in a nation where a majority 63 million people voted for Barack Obama to be the next U.S. President.  Let’s lift our voices and sing.    

When President-elect Obama spoke lovingly about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, 86, as one of the “quiet heroes that we have all across America” working hard and hoping to see their children and grandchildren thrive, I had just heard Dave Kotelchuck offer similiar praise for both known and unsung heroes.  Social justice and equity, Kotelchchuck reminded us

“requires years, indeed generations, of hard work — work that is built on the faith and dedication of the many others who came before us – the Alice Hamilton’s, the Loren Kerr’s, the Irving Selikoff’s, the Tony Mazzocchi’s and, yes, the rank and file workers and activists whose names are rarely recorded by historians but whose work lives on in the social structures we inherit and build on.”

 He added:

“As in so many aspects of preventive public health, often we are not able to see immediately and in personal terms the fruits of our labors.  We don’t have the satisfaction of knowing that we saved a particular person’s health or life, although we know that our work has had an impact in broader, population terms.”

We go on with our work.

As I learned at last week’s OHS Section awards ceremony from Dave Kotelchuck, Mr. James Weldon Johnson wrote this stirring anthem for President Lincoln’s birthday celebration in 1900 –just four years after the infamous Plessy-Ferguson (separate but equal is equal) Supreme Court decision:

Lift every voice and sing
Till 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 till 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 sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears have 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 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Frank Mirer
    November 6, 2008

    Being public schooled in Detroit below 8 mile road, my kids sang “Lift Every Voice…” in nearly every assembly. That it’s rarely sung elsewhere is another token of the racial divide in this country.

    Let’s remember that if only white women voted (let alone the men and everyone else, according to Gallup pre-election), John McCain would be our new president. If it was close among women, the votes of white men were overwheliming for whatever McCain and the Republicans stand for. We, and the Iraqi people, and many others around the world would be looking at 4 more years or more of hurt.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/108031/Candidate-Support-Gender-Among-Whites.aspx

    So much for people who say we are entering a post-racial society.

    On balance, the Clinton years were squandered. Let’s not lose these the same way.