At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.
As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”
It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.
“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:
Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “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 toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.
Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”
“And tears came down his face. Dr. King started crying and we all cried,” Lewis told NPR a few years ago. “And Dr. King said to me, ‘John, we will make it to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.'”
“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:
The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:
The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):
and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”
The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.
Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:
The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.
Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:
What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?
What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could this happen today? Should it?