Sharon Kwinjo Hist 165, Section 1 TA: Salonee Bhaman The document at hand comes from the “James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers (JWJ MSS 49)” collection in the Beinecke Library. It is found in Box 26, Folder 6, titled “Series, I. Correspondence, Grace Nail Johnson Correspondence, Anti-Lynching Crusaders / c. 1922-23.” The document itself is a prayer titled “Prayer: For Deliverance of the Colored People.” Although it was a prayer designed to be prayed by black people in a black congregation, it was not designed to be seen only by the eyes of black people. This prayer was written in 1922 when the possibility of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill passing was still in the air.
The bill, introduced to the House of Representatives by Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, passed in the House of Representatives in January 1922 but failed to pass in Congress in the Summer of 1922 due to filibustering by Southern Democrats. James Weldon Johnson, from whose collection this prayer comes from, was a civil rights pioneer who had been encouraging Representative Dyer to persist in the goal of passing this bill that would make lynching a felony in the United States. Similarly, the women of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, of which Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of James Weldon Johnson, was a part of, had set their goal of ridding America of lynching by January 1st, 1923 and stood in support of the bill. The prayer begins, “Our Father Who art in Heaven.
Hallowed be Thy name,” as does the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s prayer is a part of Christianity that has never been disputed, even as the church has split into different denominations. Considering the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which among many things was anti-Catholic, this prayer would have appealed to all Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike. Furthermore, the Lord’s Prayer was a prayer that Christ himself gave as the model prayer, and so this prayer also calls on the authoritative power of Christ in teaching how to pray, how to say the model prayer. In the second paragraph, instead of calling themselves “African Americans” or even simply “black people”, the writers refer to themselves as “American citizens of African descent”, putting emphasis first on their status as American citizens.
This is important as it happens at the beginning of the prayer, laying down the foundation that whatever is prayed in this prayer is prayed over Americans. They may be of African descent but, they are American, just like any other American, including those of Anglo-Saxon heritage. The third and fourth paragraphs express the entire problem of lynching. Of great importance in the entire anti-lynching movement is the start of the third paragraph, which makes it clear that black people are not seeking the end of lynching for the sake of having guilty men walk free. They are seeking an end to lynching because of its reality – “let not the sins of the wicked be visited upon the heads of the guiltless” – the victims of lynching are for the alleged crimes that the men taking the law into their own hands are themselves committing in lynching them.
It shows a respect for the law and for justice. The end of the fourth paragraph takes a slightly different turn, however, with the frustration and anger produced by this entire problem coming through. Although the prayer has so far been palatable for most, drawing in readers with a gentler hand, this expression of pure emotion is powerful in humanising the prayer. After all, for the black people praying this in their congregations, lynching is not just a faraway concept, but one that has taken away the lives of some their loved ones, and is hovering over the lives of the others. Black people may be seeking a peaceful end to lynching peacefully, but the problem itself is not a peaceful one. It has been the unjust cause of death of innocent men and women, and even unborn children , and that is angering.
Finally, there is a call to true Americanism in the prayer, which shows that this prayer is not just intended for the eyes of black folk. The writers are careful not to attack the legislators, but to pray that they may carry out their jobs with wisdom, and seek the good of the nation. The prayer does not ask for God to bring down any form of misfortune to the lawmakers opposed to the anti-lynching bill, but to simply have them be enlightened, ultimately for the good of America. This prayer appeals to the black congregation reading it and also to the larger population of people reading it. It is a gentle, yet powerful, cry to God – a cry for peace and wisdom, not only for the benefit of Americans of African descent but for all Americans.