James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was a leading American author, poet, early civil rights activist, and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1896, he graduated from Atlanta University, now known as Clark Atlanta University. He was the first African American accepted to the Florida bar. He served in several public capacities, including as consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua and as principal of Stanton, a school for African American students in Jacksonville. He started the move towards the development of a high school program there. Johnson is best remembered for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and collections of folklore. In addition, Mr. Johnson was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. He was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University.
His first major literary sensation was The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a fictional account of a light-skinned black man's attempts to survive and succeed in the early 20th Century that is designed to read like an autobiography. While serving as executive secretary of the NAACP from 1920 through 1931, he released God's Trombones, one of the works for which he is best remembered today. Other works by Johnson include an opera, Tolosa, and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book calling for civil rights for African Americans. Johnson composed the lyrics of Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing for which his brother J. Rosamond Johnson composed the music. This is commonly known as the "Negro (or Black) National Anthem."
James Weldon Johnson died in 1938 while on vacation in Wiscasset, Maine when the car he was driving was hit by a train.