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James Weldon Johnson’s Ode to the “Deep River” of American History

What an old poem says about the search for justice following the Capitol riot

NAACP head James Weldon Johnson.
Carl Van Vechten Collection/Getty
American writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, photographed December 3, 1932
American writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, photographed December 3, 1932

Marches and mobs in Washington, D.C., have been much on the minds of Americans of late. So, too, for James Weldon Johnson in 1930, when the longtime secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People crafted the poem “St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day.” First published that year in a private printing of only 200 copies and then in 1935 to a larger audience, Johnson’s remarkable six-page creation warrants our reading now as the FBI pursues hundreds of insurrectionists from the Capitol riot on January 6. Johnson’s poem also provides a bracing historical grounding as Congress prepares a commission to investigate how former President Donald Trump and many other elements of government and society conspired to create the mob that threatened the life of our democracy.

Johnson drew upon a lifetime of political and literary work to arrive at his inspiration for the poem. Born in 1871, he was a native of Jacksonville, Florida, well educated in primary and secondary schools before attending Atlanta University in the early 1890s. By World War I, Johnson had established himself as one of the great African American polymaths in our history. He was a musical lyricist on early Broadway; with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, he composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. He was a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service in Latin America, a brilliant novelist and poet, a superb newspaper essayist, a primary literary broker of what we have come to call the Harlem Renaissance, and the organizational force behind the NAACP.

Johnson knew deeply the humiliation and social destruction—as well as the community resilience—forced by the Jim Crow system. In 1919 and 1920, he was the NAACP’s lead activist and lobbyist for an anti-lynching bill before Congress. The final failure of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the Senate in 1922, after passing in the House, was not for lack of heroic effort by Johnson and his team. The American obscenity of lynching infested Johnson’s artistic and moral imagination, fostering a kind of radical patriotism inspired by the promise of emancipation.

His poem “Fifty Years,” published on page one of The New York Times on January 1, 1913, commemorated a half-century of Black freedom and remains one of the most compelling statements of African American birthright ever imagined:

For never let the thought arise
That we are here on sufferance bare;
Outcasts, asylumed ’neath these skies,
And aliens without part or share.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Johnson was further a major organizer of the Silent Protest March against lynching, sponsored by the NAACP, in 1917, which filled Fifth Avenue in New York with 10,000 disciplined, peaceful Black people in an event unlike anyone had ever seen.

He also stood shudderingly aware of the revival in the 1920s of the Ku Klux Klan, epitomized by the extraordinary march of some 30,000 hooded and robed Klansmen from all over the country down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on August 8, 1925. They had arrived in the capital, in part, on some 18 trains specially reserved for KKK marchers. The Klansmen’s highly organized demonstration went in the opposite direction from Trump’s crowds on January 6. They trekked from the Capitol to the Treasury Department and then to the base of the Washington Monument. On their banners, they announced themselves for “America First” and “100 percent Americanism.” They brought many crosses to the march, and they intermittently sang rousing choruses of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And they brandished their nativist, anti-Jewish, and anti-Catholic ideology in a host of visual ways.

On the following day, hordes of Klansmen gathered again, across the Potomac in Arlington, first at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected only four years earlier. After laying wreaths at the tomb, a crowd estimated at 75,000 gathered at the horse grounds of Arlington for a cross-burning. As darkness arrived, long lines of Klansmen circled the 80-foot-high cross fashioned from a Virginia tree, each carrying an American flag. Press reports and photo captions remarked that many of the Klansmen were bold enough that they removed their hoods. The Washington Post reported a traffic jam, “the heaviest since the burial of the unknown soldier.”

All this and more animated Johnson in his New York apartment years later, as he reimagined a Washington Klan march. “St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day” begins with images of heaven as a place of fatigue and weariness. “Archangels” showed “signs of age,” and even the “celestial choir” exhibited “a woeful want of pristine fire.” Ages of bliss had fallen into “monotony.” The angelic hosts asked St. Peter to enliven them with “reminiscences of heavenly history.”

So St. Peter “stroked his beard” and “fumbled with his keys,” and a story “flashed” in his mind, “the one / About the unknown soldier / who came from Washington.” “’Twas Resurrection morn,” cried St. Peter, “And Gabriel blew a blast upon his horn.” And as “A shudder shook the world.… From the four corners of all the earth they drew, / Their faces radiant and their bodies new.”

Then St. Peter announced that “within the great American border / There was an issuance of a special order.” The “high potentate of Klandom” proclaimed to his flock

That all the trusty patriotic mentors,
And duly qualified Hundred Percenters
Should forthwith gather together upon the banks
Of the Potomac, there to form their ranks,
March to the tomb, by orders to be given,
And escort the unknown soldier up to heaven.

And the hordes gathered from all regions, including veterans of American wars, “Not to forget, there gathered every man / Of the Confederate Veterans and the Ku-Klux Klan.” As the “Grand Imperial Marshal gave the sign / Column on column, the marchers fell in line; / Majestic as an army in review, / They swept up Washington’s wide avenue.”

The march lost its discipline as many “hastened on,” worried that the unknown soldier “might be risen and gone.” The fear was groundless; as they arrived on Arlington Heights, “They heard a faint commotion in the tomb / Like the stirring of a child within the womb.” In a frenzy now, the mob worked “to dig the unknown soldier out.” And then as the dramatic moment of the saga arrived, St. Peter gave the story a startling jolt.

They worked away, they labored with a will,
They toiled with pick, with crowbar, and with drill
To cleave a breach; nor did the soldier shirk;
Within his limits, he helped to push the work.

As the soldier “heaved and hove,” the mob “cleaved and clove; / Through it, at last, his towering form loomed big and / bigger- / ‘Great God Almighty! Look!’ they cried, ‘he is a [n-word]!’”

The mob stood shocked and silent but only for an “instant.” Then “Bedlam” ensued. “They clamored, they railed, some roared, some / bleated; / All of them felt that somehow they’d been cheated.” The Klan mob decided on “burying him again.” But they were now confounded; “Would” the soldier, “Even in concrete, re-entombed, stay buried?” What if “his body and soul were immortal?” Then St. Peter, still holding his keys, offered the punch lines: “In a moment more, midst the pile of broken stone, / The unknown soldier stood, and stood alone.”

The poem marches to its musical ending as St. Peter remembers the close of that eventful day. As he closed the “pearly gate,” he gazed once more out “over the jasper wall, / And afar descried a figure dark and tall.” The unknown soldier, “dust-stained and begrimed,” came striding and singing up the hill. On he came, “singing and swinging up the golden street, / the music married to the tramping of his feet.” On he came, singing over and over in four verses, “Deep river, my home is over Jordan, / Deep river, I want to cross over into camp-ground.”

St. Peter rushed to the gate and swung it open. Johnson pushes the terror of this story aside and leaves us singing along with the “Tall black soldier-angel marching alone, / Swinging up the golden street, saluting at the great white throne.” Heaven, he says, now had a whole new spirit, “Something that quivered / ’twixt tears and laughter.”

American history is a deep river. The events of January 6 and our enduring debates over their meaning remind us that history is never finished and we have to keep crossing over this river, with all the honesty and truth we can muster from the spirituals and the blues, from historical knowledge, and from our greatest storytellers and poets. The lesson of January 6 may be not only that we are searching for justice now, but we always have been—on both sides of the river.