National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
James Weldon Johnson's influence extended into many spheres of early-twentieth-century African American life. He first achieved acclaim as a lyricist, composing with his brother "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a work that later became known as the "Negro National Anthem." As a poet, journalist, and editor, Johnson contributed to and encouraged the growth of the "New Negro" movement, a renaissance in African American cultural expression. His novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man explored the phenomenon of "passing" with a remarkable degree of insight and poignancy. Johnson's contributions were not limited to the literary arena, however. He served as a United States diplomat, first in Venezuela and later in Nicaragua, and in 1917 joined the staff of the NAACP. By 1920 he served as that organization's chief executive and helped make the NAACP a national leader in civil rights activism.