“We Shall Overcome”

Music Musing #89
by Dean McIntyre

"We Shall Overcome" (The United Methodist Hymnal, 533) is the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA; but in a larger, global context, it is a freedom, liberation, and political protest song that has carried the hopes of many different people and many different causes. It is listed as an African American Spiritual in our hymnal, which is inaccurate; and there is no copyright citation other than the arrangement, which is also inaccurate. 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. Here is its story.

United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton Young presents the theory that the song comes from a spiritual printed in 1792 set to the tune "The Sicilian Mariner's Hymn to the Virgin," known in The United Methodist Hymnal (no. 671) as SICILIAN MARINERS, accompanying the text "Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing." The shape of both tunes is strikingly similar. The theory suggests that both text and tune originated among captured Africans being brought to the West on European slave ships.

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. (Read "Music Musing # 38: February 18, 2005, Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), Grandfather of Gospel Music")
  • 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 (later Highlander Research and Education Center) 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 the song to the community. While he was at the school at that same time, folk singer Pete Seeger learned it 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) the 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 Freedom Riders who carried it all over the USA. And there were other events that propelled the song along:

  • 1963: Joan Baez recorded "We Shall Overcome" and sang it at concerts and numerous civil rights marches and gatherings.
  • 1963: At the closing of his performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Bob Dylan was joined by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary; and they sang "Blowin' in the Wind," which had reached no. 2 on the Billboard top singles chart. As an encore, they sang "We Shall Overcome"; and they were joined by Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers, and Theodore Bikel. The sell-out crowd of 13,000 enthusiastically joined in the singing.
  • August 28, 1963: At the great March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, the huge crowd had been entertained and led by Dylan; the Freedom Singers; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Joan Baez, who had opened the program by leading them in singing "Oh, Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome."
  • 1964: Martin Luther King included the song in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway.
  • 1965: The 50-mile Selma-to-Montgomery March might have been typical in its use of the song. Whenever they marched, rested, camped out on the roads, or waited for speeches, the marchers sang songs: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Oh, Freedom," and the spirituals; but they always came back to "We Shall Overcome," inventing hundreds of verses and variations.
  • 1965: President Lyndon Johnson used the phrase "We shall overcome" in a speech to Congress, just days following "Bloody Sunday"on the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
  • 1984: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, used the song in the South African anti-apartheid movement.
  • 1989: Appalachian miners at the Pittston Coal Company used it as a rallying cry in their strike.
  • 1989: Chinese students at Tienanmen Square wore T-shirts with the motto. As tanks and troops moved in to crush the student rebellion, journalists reported hearing and seeing the students singing "We Shall Overcome."
  • 2001: At a Yankee Stadium service of tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Harlem Boys and Girls Choir and tens of thousands sang the song.
  • 2005: In 1997 Britain handed over Hong Kong to The People's Republic of China. Negotiated terms had included provisions for Hong Kong's continued autonomy and free enterprise. As the Chinese made changes to that law, Hong Kong workers protested in 2005 and sang "We Shall Overcome."

Thus, the song, with roots in slave ships, an African American Methodist pastor and hymn writer, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and continued protest and freedom movements all over the world, endures as THE anthem of freedom and liberation. Our hymnal's copyright citation is inaccurate. Copyright is held by Seeger, Carawan, and Hamilton, with all royalties from the song going to the "We Shall Overcome" Fund,administered by the Highlander Center and used to give small grants to cultural activities of African Americans in the U.S.A. South.

See also the following items on this site:

  • "I'll Overcome Someday" by Charles Tindley
  • Musical Responses for Holy Communion based on "We Shall Overcome"

Sources for This Article:

Categories: Music Musings, Worship, Worship Planning, Lectionary Calendar, Music Resources