The spirituals were born out of the experience of slavery, many of them originating in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "We Shall Overcome" is of much later origin. The more popular account of the song's origins credits two sources for its birth and dissemination: the Black church and the union movement.
- 1900: Charles Tindley wrote his song, "I'll Overcome Some Day," and published it in his collection of 1901, one of the first collections of published songs by an African American. The song became popular in the Black church all over the USA.
- 1945: A group of striking workers from the Negro Food and Tobacco Union in Charleston, South Carolina, included Tindley's song as one of the many songs they sang during the strike. It rapidly spread to other union gatherings and strikes throughout the country.
- Late 1940s: The Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, is a center where people can come together to live, work, and learn from one another. Among the many influential people who have gone there are Pete Seeger and Rosa Parks. A group of women strikers visited the school in the late 1940s and taught their version of "I'll Overcome Some Day" to the community. While he was at the school at that same time, folk singer Pete Seeger learned the song from Zilphia Horton, the wife of the school's cofounder. Seeger changed Tindley's "I'll overcome some day" to "We will overcome," and that's how he performed the song early on. Highlander's Septima Clark is credited with changing "We will overcome" to "We shall overcome." The change of "I" to "we" transformed the song from a statement of personal defiance into a shared anthem of a group and movement.
- Guy Carawan, also with Highlander, is credited with teaching the song to black students preparing for nonviolent demonstrations, thus giving the song its third source of strength and popularity – the coming Civil Rights struggle. The short, simple song by now embodied three ideals: (1) passive resistance, (2) giving courage to people to stand up to unjust authority, and (3) a sense of solidarity with others in a common cause and struggle.
During the time of the great Civil Rights marches and protests, the song was taught, learned, and sung thousands of times, often in a spontaneous, improvised fashion that resulted in new words and phrases being added on the spot. The song was sung by those who endured jail terms for their activities, and also by the Freedom Riders, who carried it all over the USA. (Also see: "We Shall Overcome": Music Musing 89)