While Felton stresses the range of his subject’s activities and accomplishments—and they are impressive—Johnson is perhaps best remembered for his novels, poems, and enduringly for one song composed with John: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the Negro National Hymn.
Felton’s choice of Johnson as a subject undoubtedly owes much to the civil rights activism of the 1960’s, identified nationally with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as with the then-relative militancy of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. In the context of racial riots in many major U.S. cities, the killings and intimidations of civil rights activists in the South, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and King, and California’s trial of Angela Davis and other militants, Felton’s James Weldon Johnson, published in 1971, purposely focuses on an admirable leader of the previous generation. Johnson first of all was a creative person whose writings and other achievements had intrinsic value regardless of their author’s race or the fact that they dealt with race. Moreover, for the generation of the 1960’s, Felton, by implication, is able to underscore the point that the persistent moderation of the previous generation of African-American leaders had helped to clear the way for the dramatic events of subsequent years.