Recent attention around “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song long known as the Black national anthem that’s been embraced by Black Lives Matter protesters, has renewed interest in its lyricist, civil rights activist and educator James Weldon Johnson, whose distinguished life was cut short by a car accident on his way home from a vacation in Maine.

Johnson and his wife, Grace Nail Johnson, had been in Islesboro visiting their friend E. George Payne, dean of the teacher’s college at New York University, in 1938.

“Payne had a summer home and yearly invited the Johnsons up in June. They pretty much came every summer,” said Noelle Morrissette, director of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of “James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes.”

James Weldon Johnson Courtesy of Library of Congress

Grace Nail Johnson was driving through a rainstorm and low visibility when their car passed through a poorly marked railroad crossing in Wiscasset and was struck by a train. James Weldon Johnson, who was 67 at the time, died after being extricated from the vehicle, according to his New York Times obituary. His wife, then 40, was severely injured and given a 50-50 chance of survival.

“Grace remained in Maine for six months. She was incapacitated and remained in the hospital in Damariscotta. She couldn’t attend her husband’s funeral,” Morrissette said.

Johnson’s life, and the story behind his lyrics, are being remembered as the song experiences a surge in popularity for its powerful, positive message about enduring difficulties and fighting for freedom, as the country grapples with racial injustice. “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” are among the lyrics.

“People take up songs and give it new context and meaning, and I think there are folks who think it should be celebrated as something distinct from the national culture,” Morrissette said. “You could say the anthem is in some ways a measure of how much or how little we have accomplished as a society in accommodating the voices of Black people.”

The song, which will be played before NFL games in September, started as a poem Johnson wrote in 1900 and was first recited by students at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was principal. His brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, composed the music soon after.

“He and his brother did not have great aspirations for (the song). It was simply written as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, and although he had been asked to write about the emancipator, Lincoln, he chose to write about the emancipated,” Morrissette said.

Johnson went on to serve as U.S. consul to Venezuela and then Nicaragua and later joined the NAACP, where he worked as field secretary. Johnson is also known for other works of literature, including “Fifty Years and Other Poems,” “The Book of American Negro Poetry” and “The Book of American Negro Spirituals.”

The NAACP deemed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” its “national anthem” in 1919, more than a decade before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem of the U.S.

“The mistake that people make is thinking that Johnson was writing an alternative anthem,” Morrissette said. “It was an anthem of Black peoples’ experiences in the United States, but he did not mean it to supplant the national anthem.”

The song has remained popular since then, with notable references including in the movie “Do the Right Thing” and Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The song has been performed by high-profile artists: in 1990, Melba Moore released a version featuring Bobby Brown and Stevie Wonder, among others, and in 2018, Beyoncé included the song in her performance at Coachella.

In June, Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., sang the song outside the Lincoln Memorial, and both Black and white protesters have continued to sing Johnson’s lyrics at protests across the nation.

Also in June, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released his “Lift Every Voice” plan, a direct reference to Johnson’s song, to address issues affecting Black communities in the United States. This month, the National Football League announced it would play the song before every game in addition to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the first week of the 2020 season, a decision that has received backlash from some Black fans.

“There is symbolic importance to the NFL adopting ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ as part of its patriotic lineup, and I think in some ways they’re trying to signal their support of Black Lives Matter, and on the other hand, they want to signal to Black fans and African American players that they are supportive of them,” said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.

“Including the national anthem as part of the backdrop … some would argue this symbolism is somewhat empty, and I want to acknowledge that there might be might be mixed feelings about how effective this is,” she said.

Staff Writer Emma Sorkin can be reached at: [email protected]

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