James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was born in Jacksonville, Florida of educated parents who relocated from the Bahamas after the Civil War. In his enormously interesting and eloquent autobiography, ALONG THIS WAY, he tells the story of his childhood during Reconstruction, his home life where he was introduced to the English classics and his education at Atlanta University. He returned to his home town to become Principal of Stanton School for Negro children where he extended the education to high school. At the same time he studied to become a lawyer. His description of the Jacksonville fire of 1900 is remarkable. His brother was an accomplished musician and they teamed up to write songs for the New York stage. Johnson wrote the lyrics for the famous hymn, “Lift Up Your Voice.”
He chronicles the introduction of Jim Crow in the South, the beginning of segregation, lynching and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. He eventually settled in New York where he and his brother were successes in providing songs for the vaudeville music world, even collaborating with Florenz Ziegfeld and other famous promoters. He became President of the New York Colored Republican Club and was active in supporting Theodore Roosevelt. He entered the Foreign Service and was U.S. Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua where he witnessed gunboat diplomacy to put down a revolution. After Woodrow Wilson was elected President his next posting was not confirmed as the Democratic Administration wanted to fill foreign positions to reward their own supporters. Johnson disliked Wilson intensely and the Democratic Party which ruled the South and denied Negroes their civil rights. At that time Negroes supported the Republican ticket in elections.
He became the first colored Secretary of the NAACP and expanded it to become a national influence. He attempted to get an anti-lynching law through Congress but failed. The descriptions in the autobiography of the mob violence against Negroes is heart-breaking. I did not realize that such cruelty could be condoned – they burned Negroes alive at the slightest provocation.
Johnson wrote several books and much poetry. He was an extremely literate man who closed out his career as Professor at Fisk University in Nashville.
His autobiography has made me deeply sensitive to the history of racial prejudice in this country. At a time of mounting tension between the races it behooves us to become informed and aware of the problems. There are no easy solutions to the race problem. We must admit that if we are not part of the solution we are part of the problem. Christians have to search their own hearts for any vestige of racial prejudice and be willing to love everyone, whatever the color of their skin. There is no excuse for racial discrimination in the church. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Jesus died to break down the barriers between all races, “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).