Something About That Song...
Tracing the History of “We Shall Overcome”
“We Shall Overcome” has a long history, with input from many people and places. Part of the melody seems to be related to two European songs from the 1700s, “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners” and “O Sanctissima.” Black slaves in the U.S. mixed and matched similar tunes in the songs “I’ll Be All Right” and “No More Auction Block For Me.”
After 1900, it seems the lyrics of another gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday,” by the Methodist minister and composer Reverend Dr. Charles Tindley, were added to the musical mix—though the music was very different. Around 1945, gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris apparently put together the essential pieces of the now-famous words and melody.
On September 2, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Part of the school’s mission was to help prepare civil rights workers to challenge unjust laws and racist policies that discriminated against African Americans. The school also made a point of bringing blacks and whites together to share experiences and to learn from each other. It was a dangerous idea. At a time when southern laws kept blacks and whites segregated or separate, some white racists terrorized African Americans with deadly violence.
Dr. King delivered the main speech that day, honoring the school’s 25th anniversary. As part of the meeting, folk singer Pete Seeger got up with his banjo. He plucked out a song he had learned at Highlander, and led the audience in singing it.
Later that day, Dr. King found himself humming the tune in the car. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” he said to his companions.
That song was “We Shall Overcome.” It soon became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It offered courage, comfort, and hope as protesters confronted prejudice and hate in the battle for equal rights for African Americans.
“We’ll Overcome” first appeared as a protest song during a 1945–1946 labor strike against American Tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina. African American women strikers, seeking a pay raise to 30 cents an hour, sang as they picketed. “I Will Overcome” was a favorite song of Lucille Simmons, one of the strikers. But she gave the song a powerful sense of solidarity by changing the “I” into “We” as they sang together. Other lyrics were improvised for pro-union purposes, including “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight.”
In 1947, Simmons brought the song to Highlander Folk School and shared it with other labor activists there. Zilphia Horton, head of the school’s cultural program, learned it and later taught it to Pete Seeger. At some point, the nationally known folk singer revised the lyrics “We will” to “We shall.”
“We Shall Overcome” proved easy to learn and sing at different types of civil rights protests such as sit-ins, marches, and huge rallies. “It’s the genius of simplicity,” Seeger said about the song in a later interview. “Any… fool can get complicated.”
“Jim Crow” Laws
The name “Jim Crow” was a mocking nickname for blacks. White southerners began using it before the U.S. Civil War.
The name was eventually attached to state and local laws designed to discriminate against African Americans and separate whites from blacks. Examples included laws segregating schools, buses, restaurants, theaters, and other public places. Facilities for blacks were almost universally inferior to those for whites.
Southern states passed many of the strongest and most shameful discriminatory laws. But hundreds of northern communities had their own “sundowner laws”—laws that required African Americans to be out of town before dark.
The song spread rapidly as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. Protesters sang it as they marched for voting rights. They also sang it as they were beat up, attacked by police dogs, and hauled off to jail for breaking laws enforcing segregation. News and pictures of brutality shocked people across the U.S. and around the world.
Slowly, gradually, more Americans of all races recognized the justice of the civil rights cause. At long last, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nearly a century after the U.S. Civil War forced an end to slavery. The new law banned racial segregation in schools, restaurants, theaters, and hotels.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner from Texas, signed the landmark legislation on August 6, 1964. In a special speech before Congress, he used the title of the song to make clear his beliefs, saying:
This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.
A year later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, a federal law that protected African Americans’ right to vote.
“We Shall Overcome” and other protest songs provided the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement. The period saw the U.S. confront one of the most complex and controversial issues in its history—race relations. Finally, the U.S. promised a measure of equality for its black citizens.
“We Shall Overcome” Around the World
Over the years, “We Shall Overcome” made the leap overseas, becoming a protest song among freedom movements around the world. It has been sung by protesters in China, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Lebanon, and parts of Eastern Europe. In India, it is known as “Hum Honge Kaamyaab,” a song most every school kid knows by heart.
How “We Are Not Afraid” Got Its Own Verse
When white thugs staged a nighttime raid on Highlander in the late 1950s, it inspired a new verse for “We Shall Overcome.” According to one of the founders of Highlander Folk School, Myles Horton:
a group of young people, a youth choir…was at Highlander. …They were looking at a movie called Face of the South. It was dark. Suddenly, raiders came in with flashlights. They must have been vigilantes and some police officers, but they weren't in uniform. They demanded the lights be turned on, but they couldn't get anybody at Highlander to do it. They were furious…running around with flashlights. In the meantime, the kids started to sing "We Shall Overcome." It made them feel good. The raiders yelled, "Shut up and turn on the lights!" Then some kid said, "We're not afraid." Then they started singing, "We are not afraid. We are not afraid." That's when that verse was born.