illustration of people lifting their arms up to the sky
Art by Loveis Wise; Courtesy of GoogleDoodles

Lift Every Voice and Sing

An uplifting poem about freedom and hope, sometimes called the Black National Anthem

By James Weldon Johnson | Art by Loveis Wise
From the September 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will interpret the meaning of a poem about hope; they will learn about the historical context of slavery and emancipation.


Poem’s Meaning

James Weldon Johnson wrote this poem in 1899. It celebrates hope for a bright future for Black people after a cruel and unjust past. As you read, look for words and lines that express hope.

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.

This poem was originally published in the September 2020 issue.  

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Google Doodle
The artwork that accompanies the poem was created by artist Loveis Wise as the Google Doodle for Juneteenth this year.
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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore More Versions

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been performed by many singers and groups. Here are some other versions you might want to share with your students:

More About the Story


interpreting text, word choice, key idea, critical thinking

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

When the poem urges readers to “sing,” it refers to literal singing but also has a broader meaning: the recounting of a shared struggle and the celebration of progress. 


The poem has an AABCCBDDEE rhyme scheme.


The text includes some challenging vocabulary, such as liberty and resound. It also contains similes and metaphors.

Knowledge Demands 

Some knowledge of the time period when the poem was written (after slavery ended, but before the civil rights movement began) will aid comprehension.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Background Information

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a beloved poem and song penned by Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. It speaks joyfully about the hope and resilience of Black people transcending the enslavement and discrimination of the past and celebrating freedom. In 1919, the NAACP named it the Black National Anthem. It has been sung over the years in churches and schools, at civil rights protests, at graduations and other ceremonies. And it has gained new significance today, being sung again at protests and rallies as so many people have poured into the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. (Note that we only included the first verse of the poem; you can find the full text here or at many other online sources.)

The artwork that accompanies the poem was created by artist Loveis Wise as the Google Doodle for Juneteenth this year. Find out more about it here.

We hope that the poem, art, and support materials will spark conversations in your classroom about the past and the present that empower all students to seek and create a more equitable society for everyone.

1. Preparing to Read

  • Invite students to look at the poem in their magazines or online. Tell them that it’s also a song. Point out that it’s still sung today—even Beyoncé sang it at a music festival in 2018! Ask if any of them are familiar with it and let students share where they have heard or sung it.
  • Prompt students to read the title and look at the picture. Ask: What mood, or feeling, do you think the poem will have? What makes you think that?
  • Read the Up Close box aloud. Pause to discuss the historical context of the poem. Make sure that students are familiar with these parts of American history: - Black people were enslaved—or forced to work for no pay and with no freedom—in America for almost 250 years. This was a cruel and shameful practice. - In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that all enslaved people in states that were fighting for the South in the Civil War were free. Still, slavery didn’t officially end until 1865, when a new law was passed which made it illegal. - The freeing of enslaved people is celebrated by a holiday called Juneteenth. It marks the day, on June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free. The news about President Lincoln’s proclamation took two-and-a-half years to reach them.
  • Slavery can be a difficult and sensitive topic to address, especially if students are not yet familiar with it. To build students’ background knowledge, share this Scholastic News article and review the Strategies for Teaching About Slavery .
  • Distribute or digitally share the Poetry Kit (available in your Resources tab) and go over the Must-Know Words.

2. Reading the Poem

  • Read the poem aloud for the class, or play this Google Doodle video of the poem, created for Juneteenth 2020, which starts with the artwork by Loveis Wise that we have in the magazine and illustrates many important moments in the struggle for equal rights for Black people. It is narrated by LeVar Burton.

3. Discussing the Poem

  • What words and phrases in the article suggest hope? (word choice) Students might say that lift, sing, harmonies of liberty, rejoicing, faith, hope, rising sun, new day, or others suggest hope.
  • Think about the title and the first line of the poem. Why is it important to lift every voice? (key idea) It is important because voices are stronger when they are all singing together. Singing is a way of bringing people together, especially when the song has a special meaning, like the freedom of formerly enslaved people.
  • An anthem is a song that has a special meaning of happiness or pride for a country or a group of people. Why do you think this poem is called the Black National Anthem? (Think about your answer to the last question.) Why might it be an important poem for everyone to learn? (poem’s meaning) It is probably called the Black National Anthem because it expresses happiness, pride, and hope for change for Black people after an unjust past. It could be important for everyone because we should all celebrate changes that have helped people gain freedom and fair treatment, while being reminded that we can’t stop working toward the goal of making sure everyone is treated fairly now and in the future.
  • This poem was written a long time ago. Why do you think people still sing the song based on the poem today? (critical thinking) Answers will vary. Students might say that people sing it because they like or relate to the idea of celebrating freedom and moving away from a terrible time in the past. It brings people together — especially Black people whose history is a main idea of the poem. Also, it reminds us that we need to continue to work for change to make sure that everyone is treated fairly; to “march on till victory is won.”

4. Skill Building

  • Return to the Poetry Kit as a guide to continue discussing the poem and the artwork, or have students complete this Skill Builder at home. PDF and interactive versions of the Poetry Kit are available in your Resources tab.

Great Ideas for Remote Learning

  • Have students record video or audio of themselves reciting the poem or singing it. Invite them to share the recording with you, or if they would like, with the class.
  • Complete the Poetry Kit (available in your Resources tab) together by opening the digital version, sharing your screen, and answering the questions based on discussion you have with students.