CHICAGO — It’s been performed by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Beyoncé, and everywhere from George H. W. Bush’s presidential inauguration to Super Bowl Sunday. Now, the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem is on the road to new recognition.

First performed by a group of school children, it should come as no surprise that this beloved piece of American history is the brainchild of a teacher.

In the year 1900, James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem that would eventually become one of the most recognized songs in the country. It was just one of his many accomplishments.

In addition to being a poet, a principal, and a Broadway composer, Johnson was also an attorney, one of the first black lawyers admitted to the Florida bar.

“I believe that probably he had no idea what was going to happen to this song. He was just expressing what he felt,” said historian,  activist and educator Dr. Carol Adams. 

Adams said Johnson’s contribution to the soundtrack of the American story, can’t be overlooked.

“It is marching orders,” Adams said. “Remember this is post-reconstruction era and so during the reconstruction period you even had Black senators and all of that, before the south got scared and said this is going too far and started re-segregating and lynching. He comes right behind that era and that’s why he says to us, he says, ‘Hey, this is continuing. This struggle is still going on. We haven’t won, we’ve been through a lot but it’s not over.'”

Originally scripted as part of a school celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday the three-versed hymn was accompanied by music, composed by James Weldon Johnson’s brother, Rosamond. Northwestern University music historian, Kent R. Brooks said while the words of the song are purposely moving, so is the melody.

“There’s a device in music called text painting or word painting, and it’s when you take the melody or chords or harmonies of a song and align it with the text to create this imagery,” Brooks said. “It means a lot of things, how the chord makes you feel, what emotions the chord can evoke.  In the very first line, lift every voice and sing, that lift every voice melody, rises, there’s an ascending and you have this imagery of moving upwards. When you get to sing a song, full of the faith that the long past has taught us, that’s on a minor chord, suddenly it’s sad, it’s not happy anymore.”

In 1919, during one of the most racially violent periods since the Civil War, the lyrics were given new life. Again, by educators. Many of the children who first learned the song went on to become teachers themselves, reviving it for a new generation.

It eventually caught the ear of Booker T. Washington, ushering it to a new height, when it was adopted as the official song of the NAACP.

Now, more than a hundred years after its inception, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is pushing a bill to have the song recognized as a national hymn.

“I came to this Congress 30 years ago, and I’ve been saying for 30 years that I was going to do that,” Clyburn said. “It took me 29 years to build up enough nerve to introduce the bill, thinking I would get a lot of blowback, I have not and I really appreciate that,” Clyburn said.

Even though it was well received, the bill has not made it to the floor for a vote. Clyburn plans to bring the bill to the Congressional Committee again, hoping for more progress the second time. He says the song’s rousing lyrics capture the spirit of Democracy’s promise.

“It is shared sacrifices in what everyone’s experiences may have been and how they’ve contributed to making this one country and making the motto of our country real which is E pluribus unum, out of many one,” Clyburn said.

A few years before his death, Johnson wrote that “the lines of this song repay me in elation, almost in exquisite anguish whenever I hear them sung by negro children.” As Americans of every age, faith and race embrace the song, the anthem’s call to action continues to inspire.