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NAACP Celebrates the Life of James Weldon Johnson

WHEREAS, James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Bahamian immigrant parents.  He became an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist; and 

WHEREAS, in 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era ended. He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar; and  

WHEREAS, in 1899, Johnson composed the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," originally written as a poem for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday at Stanton School. A contest was held to determine what the United States anthem should be, and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was entered and chosen as the winner; however when Johnson came forward to claim the prize the Judges rejected him and chose the second choice for the anthem "The Star Spangled Banner". This song became widely popular and has remains the "negro national anthem"; and  

WHEREAS, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to be US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1906 to 1913. In 1914 he was the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University.  Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University; and 

WHEREAS, Johnson joined the NAACP in 1915 and started working as a field secretary in 1917. In 1920 he was the first African American to be chosen as executive secretary (a position equivalent to the President and CEO today); and 

WHEREAS, as a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1915 Mr. Johnson led the NAACP campaign to have D. W. Griffith's award-winning "The Birth of a Nation" withdrawn or cut and reedited as it led to mob violence and contained extensive racist stereotypes; and 

WHEREAS, in support of the July 28, 1917 NAACP Silent March in New York City, which drew over 10,000 African Americans along 5th Avenue and which he led along with W.E.B. Du Bois, churches and community leaders to protest lynching and other forms of violence against African Americans nationwide Johnson sent letters to branches urging them to organize parallel demonstrations throughout the nation; and 

WHEREAS, after the East St. Louis riots, he led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to meet with Woodrow Wilson to make the plea that lynching and mob violence be made a national crime through a Federal enactment or constitutional amendment, but he met with his secretary, Joseph Tumulty, instead; and 

WHEREAS, in 1918 James Weldon Johnson was responsible for an unprecedented increase in NAACP memberships especially in the South; in his first year, Johnson organized 13 new branches in the South; and 

WHEREAS, in 1918 James Weldon Johnson led a delegation to the White House to ask for clemency for the men of the Twenty-fourth, soldiers who stormed the town near Camp Logan near Houston after being angered by the arrest of a Black corporal who assisted a black woman and Black soldier who had been abused by a city policeman.  The NAACP delegation was able to get 30 minutes of Wilson's time and Johnson gave him a petition of about 12,000 names and a large number of telegrams from branches and individuals across the country; and  

WHEREAS, Johnson was also able to address violence against African Americans such as the Illinois  riot, three lynchings in Memphis, Dyersburg and Estill Springs, Tennessee. He asked for amnesty for the soldiers and wanted the president to use the power of his office to make a public appeal against lynching and mob rule. Wilson promised to review the records of the Twenty- fourth Infantry and that he would "seek the opportunity" to speak out against lynching. Shortly after this meeting, the government commuted ten death sentences to life imprisonment but the remaining six were executed.  For two decades the NAACP fought to free the remaining Twenty -fourth Infantry. In 1923, under Johnson, the NAACP secured 43,000 signatures on a petition asking for the release of the prisoners from Leavenworth. By spring, the War Department informed the NAACP that 54 of the men were eligible for parole and were released over a four year period; and 

WHEREAS, in 1919 Johnson lead the NAACP and others to form the National Conference on Lynching, a 2-day conference where legislative and law-enforcement proposals. It ended with a large public meeting at Carnegie Hall addressed by Johnson and presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes; and 

WHEREAS, when Johnson assumed the role of Executive Secretary in 1920, he reorganized the NAACP. The first order of business was to assist African American farmers in Arkansas who wanted a fair price for their cotton. The Black farmers were attacked and they retaliated.  The NAACP hired attorney Scipio Jones to defend the farmers and after five years of trials that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, all 79 men were freed; and 

WHEREAS, shortly after Mr. Johnson was named NAACP Executive Secretary was that he worked with Walter White (whom he convinced to join the NAACP staff) to lead a fierce two-year anti-lynching campaign for a federal anti-lynching law.  This effort served as a model for the NAACP anti-lynching lobbying for the next three decades; and 

WHEREAS, in 1923 under Executive Secretary Johnson, the NAACP organized a major conference on race relations in Kansas City, Kansas attended by 500 delegates from 28 states. At this meeting, Johnson stated, "We are here to serve notice that we are in a fight to the death for the rights guaranteed us as American citizens by the Constitution"; and 

WHEREAS, as Executive Secretary, James Weldon Johnson continued to put a premium on membership;  within a three-year period, he increased the number of branches  from 68 to 310, and due in large part to his relentless efforts in Florida and elsewhere, membership in the South exceeded that of the rest of the nation.  He tirelessly traveled to branches to urge activism and solicit financial support of the NAACP; and 

WHEREAS, in May of 1928 Executive Secretary Johnson was able to announce the "smashing of a 39 year record" where there were no reported lynchings for the first four months of the year. The total fell to 11 for 1928 and 10 in 1929; and 

WHEREAS, James Weldon resigned from his position in 1930 to teach at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; and 

WHEREAS, Johnson died in an automobile crash in 1932 in Wisasset, Maine; and 

WHEREAS, on June 6, 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5005, a bill introduced by Congressman Al Lawson (FL -5) to direct the Secretary of Interior to conduct a special resource study to determine the suitability and feasibility of establishing the birthplace of James Weldon Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida as a unit of the National Park System. 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the NAACP strongly supports H.R. 5005 and directs its Washington Bureau to use its full arsenal of advocacy tools to see the legislation pass the U.S. Senate and become law; and 

THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that every member and unit of the NAACP become educated on the life and work of James Weldon Johnson; and 

THEREFORE, BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the NAACP celebrates the life of James Weldon Johnson and we are thankful for his spirit and example in helping lead our great association.