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 ’til victory is won.
This poem was written by James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in February 1900, and performed by 500 students of the Stanton School, a segregated elementary school of which Mr. Johnson was principal. These were the words heard by the crowd gathered that day to hear Mr. Booker T. Washington. These were the words later set to music by James Weldon’s brother, John, and sung in African-American churches and events throughout the 1900s.
Though the poem describes the dark history in which these descendants of slaves have lived, it’s aspirational message appeals to all Americans, I believe. While attending an inaugural celebration for Barack Obama, I had the opportunity to join the assembled crowd in singing this song. That shared song–of hope that the present had brought us–was a clear legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. Black and white, Christian and Jew, gay and straight, we all sang this beautiful anthem together, connected by a hope that the nation could move into a new day, together.