The Library of Congress describes the famous Civil Rights Movement song, “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.”
At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, folk singer Joan Baez led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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 [English nineteenth-century philosopher Thomas] 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.
As Shaylyn Romney Garret and Robert D. Putnam put it, in a New York Times op-ed piece exploring the reasons why racial progress stalled in the post-1960s era:
It is difficult to say which came first — white backlash against racial realignment or the broader shift from “we” to “I.” Perhaps America’s larger turn toward “I” was simply a response to the challenge of sustaining a more diverse, multiracial “we” in an environment of deep, embedded and unresolved racism. But it is also possible that a broader societal turn away from shared responsibilities to one another eroded the fragile national consensus around race as all Americans began to prioritize their own interests above the common good. A selfish, fragmented “I” society is not a fertile soil for racial equality.
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 a white-Latinx singer credibly do this today? Should they?
In the chapter “We Shall Overcome,” from his 1969 book Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary (and later prolific author) Julius Lester casts the song in an ironic light:
In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.
Indeed, young, increasingly radicalized SNCC activists had accompanied Dr. King on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The marchers camped in the fields at night, and, when Stokely Carmichael, the new head of SNCC (he had followed later long-serving congressman John Lewis in his leadership role), heard “We Shall Overcome” being sung around the campfire, he and his SNCC colleagues drowned it out with their version: “We Shall Overrun.”
As New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl noted in June, 2020, during the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, “[Whites were the ones who] set the fire when we heard a peaceful crowd singing, ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and understood that someday would never be today, that someday was at best still decades and decades away.”
Which paraphrases Dr. King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
How do you think Julius Lester engages with Dr. King’s philosophy of the “Beloved Community”?
“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Read the facsimile of Dr. King’s suggestions for black riders of the newly-integrated Montgomery, Alabama buses in 1956:
In addition to being a writer and activist, Julius Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.
A stunning performance by the Aeolians, the legendary chorus of HBCU Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama.
Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.