It would be hard to find a better example of alt-law success than James Weldon Johnson.
The author of the civil rights anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a lawyer. But he spent most of his life doing other things like writing Broadway plays, educating the descendants of slaves and launching the NAACP.
Oh yeah, and quashing a rebellion in Nicaragua.
Johnson’s career is a testament to how disparate strands of personality and talent can be woven into a professional tapestry of beauty and significance.
A Talent for Teaching
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871. Blessed with parents who believed in the value of education, he enrolled in historically black Clark Atlanta University. During college he periodically took time off to travel to rural Georgia and teach the children and grandchildren of former slaves. The work was difficult, the environment hostile. But he later described it as one of the best experiences of his life.
After college, he returned to Jacksonville. He became the principal of Stanton School, an all-black institution with the largest student body in the city. From day one he was an innovative educator. He advocated better pay for teachers and added a ninth and tenth grade for students.
Reading for the Law
While his career as an educator was taking off, Johnson was also studying law under a white attorney. In 1898, he became the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. He was also the first to seek admission to the bar from Duval County.
As part of the bar admission process, Johnson underwent a two-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later wrote that one of the examiners was so disturbed at the sight of a black man that he left the room.
He practiced law while continuing as principal at Stanton. By this time he was writing poems and songs as well. In 1901, he and his brother John moved to New York City, where they wrote some 200 songs for musical theater.
Johnson was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance. When he wasn’t penning Broadway hits he was busy writing novels (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man) and publishing anthologies (The Book of American Negro Spirituals, God’s Trombones and The Book of American Negro Poetry).
Diplomacy and Civil Rights
But wait, there’s more. Johnson was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. During the latter posting, he was credited with helping to quell a violent rebellion. All in a day’s work, you know.
On the home front, Johnson was a driving force in the early days of the NAACP. He served as the group’s first executive secretary and organized dozens of new chapters in the South. He lobbied for federal anti-lynching legislation and mounted legal challenges to voter disfranchisement laws like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses.
When he died in 1938, more than 2000 people attended his funeral.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the Stanton School to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
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.
- NAACP http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-James-Weldon-Johnson
- Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson
- Poets.org http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lift-every-voice-and-sing
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at 919-619-2441 or email@example.com.