History of Hymns: "We Shall Overcome"
By C. Michael Hawn
We Shall Overcome
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 533
We shall overcome,
we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
we shall overcome someday!
"We Shall Overcome" is a simple musical composition with complex origins. Songs that are transmitted by oral tradition develop a life of their own. They survive because they are portable — they can be sung easily without musical notation. They survive because they are adaptable — they can be modified on the spot to fit circumstances as they arise. They survive because they give voice to a movement — their identity is unified with the aspirations of people. These attributes supersede concerns of origins in many ways.
That said, how do we get this song that is synonymous with the African American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968)? Some ascribe its origins to a gospel hymn by Methodist preacher Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1953), who ministered in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century and penned 45 songs for his congregation. It is tempting to credit the lyrical origins of "We Shall Overcome" to the refrain of Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day":
I'll overcome some day,
I'll overcome some day;
If in my heart I do not yield
I'll overcome some day.
However, the Rev. Carlton Young and others have pointed out that, though some words are in common, there is no metrical or melodic similarity between the two songs.
Another theory posed by Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate is that "We Shall Overcome" is based on a spiritual derived from the tune of "The Sicilian Mariner's Hymn to the Virgin." This tune, SICILIAN MARINERS, may be found in The United Methodist Hymnal as hymn 671. As the Rev. Young points out, the first eight measures bear a striking resemblance to the music of "We Shall Overcome." Slaves may have heard the seafaring hymn sung by sailors during the middle passage from Africa via England and on to America and adapted it. William McClain, preaching professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, affirms the roots of the song in slavery, but notes, "it is not known exactly how many or which of the verses of this song originated with the slaves."
The song was published in 1947 in the People's Song Bulletin through the efforts of folk song activist Pete Seeger (1919-2014) with an introduction by musician and community activist Zilphia Horton (1910-1956), who, with her husband Miles Horton, were the founders of the Highlander Folk School in 1932, a training school for union organizers in New Market, Tennessee. She has been credited for adapting songs such as "We Shall Overcome," "This Little Light of Mine," and "We Shall Not Be Moved" to the Civil Rights Movement. By the time of its publication in 1947, the Rev. Young states, "the song emerged from the African American oral tradition and became a protest song of both segregated and integrated labor unions."
Guy Carawan (b. 1927), a white folk musician and musicologist trained at the Highlander Folk School, introduced the song, according to Julian Bond, to the Civil Rights Movement by teaching it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1960. The song was then picked up by folk singers such as Joan Baez (b. 1941) in the early 1960s and sung at protest rallies, folksong festivals, and concerts where it became identified and adapted for the Civil Rights Movement with new stanzas.
When asked the origins of the song in an interview by Wendy Schuman in 2011, Pete Seeger responded: "Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. The original was faster." He then sings, "I'll be alright, I'll be alright, I'll be alright, someday ... deep in my heart I do not weep, I'll be alright someday." Seeger notes other variants such as, "I'll wear the crown, I'll wear the crown," and "I'll be like Him, I'll be like Him" or "I'll overcome, I'll overcome."
Recent scholarship by Isaias Gamboa in We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil's Tongue (2012) focuses on the gospel song "If My Jesus Wills" by Louise Shropshire (1913-1993), an African American Baptist choir director, who composed her song in the 1930s, published it in 1942, and copyrighted it in 1954. The lyrics of this close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bear a stronger resemblance to the song we know:
I'll Overcome, I'll Overcome, I'll Overcome Someday
If My Jesus Wills, I Do Believe, I'll Overcome Someday
In a more recent interview with Pete Seeger in 2012, he affirms, "It's very probable" that Louise Shropshire taught "If my Jesus Wills" to Zilphia Horton, the person who taught Seeger the song. Seeger acknowledges that Louise Shropshire "should be added to the story" of "We Shall Overcome."
The adaption and adoption of this song has been widespread, including its use in Northern Ireland by Catholics seeking equal rights in 1968, anti-Communist movements during the Cold War, and by college students in the Indian state of Kerela in 1970s protesting Communism.
Recent film appearances include the 2010 Bollywood movie "My Name Is Khan," comparing the struggle of Muslims in the United States with that of African Americans. Even more recently, the song plays a prominent role in Lee Daniel's film "The Butler" (2012). Film producer Simon Sheffield discovered Gamboa's book in tracking down the copyright to the song. Discovering the story of Lousie Shropshire, Sheffield contacted Gamboa, and eventually Shropshire's grandson, Robert Anthony Goins Shropshire. Additional research was commissioned by Sheffield leading to further recognition of Lousie Shropshire's role in the composition of this song. Film director Lee Daniels received the We Shall Overcome Foundation's Oscar Micheaux Freedom Award on September 27, 2013, for his role in acknowledging Shropshire.
Perhaps the most significant citation of this song was that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final speech on March 31, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee: "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
In an interview with Amy Goodman in 2004 for Democracy Now, Pete Seeger says: "Only two years ago, I get a letter from a professor in Pennsylvania, who uncovered an issue of the United Mine Workers Journal of February 1909, and a letter there on the front page says, 'Last year at our strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, 'We Will Overcome.'" So it's probably a late 19th century union version of what was a well-known gospel song. I'll overcome, I'll overcome, I'll overcome some day."
Wherever this song came from, we are grateful for the power of music to unite people in a common just cause and to lead to change.
The link to the interview and its transcription is: www.democracynow.org/seo/2014/1/28/we_shall_overcome_remembering_folk_icon. See also this earlier interview with Pete Seeger from 2006: www.democracynow.org/2006/7/3/we_shall_overcome_an_hour_with.
While the history of "We Shall Overcome" is complex, the legacy of this song is still being lived out. Like the South African Freedom Songs of the antiapartheid protests in South Africa during the same time, "We Shall Overcome" attests to the power of song to focus a movement, unite those suffering oppression, and offer hope.
On September 8, 2017, Federal Judge Denise L. Cote from the United States District Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the makers of the film The Butler (2013), that the first stanza of "We Shall Overcome" is in the public domain and that earlier attempts to claim copyright are not valid.