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In 1899, a young poet and school principal named James Weldon Johnson was asked to address a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., for the coming anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Just two decades had passed since the Reconstruction era, and lynchings were on the rise in the segregated South.
Instead of preparing an ordinary speech, Johnson decided to write a poem. He began with a simple but powerful line, a call to action: “Lift ev’ry voice and sing.”
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