Tracing the Long Journey of “We Shall Overcome”

Although folksingers Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, and Frank Hamilton registered copyright on “We Shall Overcome” in 1960, the song has a long and fascinating history with contributions from many activist-singers. We can trace it back to two separate songs from over a hundred years ago, the lyrics from “I’ll Overcome Some Day” written by the Reverend Charles Tindley in 1903, and the melody from a traditional African American gospel song called “I’ll be All Right.”

Pete Seeger remembers in his book, Where Have All the Flowers Gone (Sing Out, 1993), that Zilphia Horton, a folk singer and activist from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, first heard the song in 1946 when she went to help tobacco workers with a labor strike in Charleston, South Carolina. She was struck by the moving simplicity of it and how one picketer, Lucille Simmons, would sing it very slowly and powerfully. Simmons is credited with changing the lyrics from “I” to “We.”

A year later, Horton taught it to Seeger when he came to visit the Highlander Folk School. Horton and Seeger published the song in his newsletter People’s Songs in 1948, although Seeger thinks this published version was incorrect. He notably changed the lyrics from “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome” and also added two new verses including “We’ll walk hand in hand.” He remembers his return to Highlander in 1957, when he met Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Although he knew the words to “We Shall Overcome,” he finally worked out the musical accompaniment to the tune on this visit. Folksingers Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton changed the rhythm of the song, which helped it spread like wildfire at protests across the country, establishing it as the anthem of the struggle.

Later at the Highlander Folk School, Guy Carawan taught the song to a large group of African American college students who came to the school to learn protest music at the “Singing in the Movement” conference in 1960. These students would go on to stage protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, and many other cities across the South. They called themselves SNCC– the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and established themselves as young radicals who refused to wait for change. As these students endured harassment at the sit-ins, they gained strength through this new song they had learned at Highlander.

On July 22, 2011, Seeger sat down with Joe Mosnier to do an oral history interview for the Civil Rights History Project and remembered these moments:

In 1956, a 12-year-old girl named Jamila Jones participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. About two years later, she came to the Highlander Folk School for nonviolent activist training. As Jones recalls in another interview conducted for the Civil Rights History Project, Highlander was raided by the police, who shut off all the lights in the building. She found the strength to sing out into the darkness, adding a new verse to “We Shall Overcome.”

Seeger, Carawan, and Frank Hamilton were convinced to register the copyright on their version of the song. They donated all of the royalties to a non-profit organization they founded called the We Shall Overcome Fund, which still provides grants “to nurture grassroots efforts within African American communities to use art and activism against injustice.”

Years later in his 1972 book, The Incompleat Folk Singer (Simon and Schuster), Seeger admitted that the song had become somewhat passé. His friend Lillian Hellman, the playwright, told him, “What kind of namby-pamby, wishy-washy moaning, always ‘some day, so-o-omeday!’ That has been said for two thousand years.” Seeger asked his friend, the noted singer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, what she thought of that. She responded, “But still if we said we were going to overcome next week, it would be a little unrealistic. What would we sing the week after next?”

Here are the verses that Seeger liked to sing as he listed them in Where Have All the Flowers Gone:

1. We shall overcome…

2. We’ll walk hand in hand…

3. We shall live in peace…

4. We shall all be free…

5. We are not afraid…

6. We shall be like “Him”…

7. We shall stand together…

8. We shall work together…

9. The Lord will see us through…

10. We shall end Jim Crow…

11. The truth will set us free…

12. The whole wide world around…

13. Black and White together…

14. Love will see us through…

15. We shall stand together…

16. We shall overcome…

 

Note: Video of Scott Ainslie is used by permission of Scott Ainslie.

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Teter
    February 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    There is information about the history of this song in the songbook Rise Up Singing on p. 64.

  2. Andrew Teter
    February 7, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    There are comments about the history of “We Shall Overcome” in the songbook Rise Up Singing on p. 64.

  3. Steve Logan
    February 12, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Such a beautiful and powerful story of one of America’s most important songs. All due to the courage and foresight of one little girl.

  4. Drew Brannigan
    December 7, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    That which was previously thought to have been fact, regarding the origins of We Shall Overcome, has recently come into the light of objective scrutiny. It is now well documented that the lyrics of We Shall Overcome were in fact derived from Rev. Mother Louise Shropshire’s hymn, “If My Jesus Wills”. Shropshire composed her song sometime between 1932 and 1942 and copyrighted it in 1954. in 2012, before his death, Pete Seeger, who is one of the five listed as “adapters” of the freedom song, admitted on film that “It’s very probable that Louise Shropshire taught her song to Zilphia Horton, who taught it to him. Seeger also concluded that Shropshire should be recognized for her role in the creation of We Shall Overcome. Since meeting him in the early 1950’s to his assassination on April 4, 1968, Louise Shropshire was a close friend, mentor and ally of Rev. Dr Martin Luther king Jr.

    This “new” and verifiable information is out there, for those interested in such things.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.