“[This song] became the theme song of this movement. It’s a powerful song and you can go anywhere in the world today where there is trouble and you will find this song and still see people in the streets marching and singing it. It is our gift to the world.”
— Freedom Singers
Guy Carawan, one of the musicians who helped popularize the protest song We Shall Overcome died last week at age 87.
In 1989 Ginger Group Film Productions created a documentary, We Shall Overcome, about the song and its place in the civil rights movement. Filmmaker Henry Hampton acquired the original film interviews, stills, and sound and picture elements for We Shall Overcome from the Ginger Group and it is now part of the Henry Hampton Collection at the WU Film & Media Archive.We Shall Overcome traces the roots of the song from its beginnings in African-American spirituals and union songs to becoming the anthem of the civil rights movement both nationally and internationally. The holdings in the collection include original interviews with Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Taj Mahal, Julian Bond, and many others.
The film traces the history of the song and how it came to be sung as a political anthem, and how the lyrics and music jumped national lines and were eventually sung in countless protests and movements across the globe from the American South to South Africa. The song first appeared as a work song sung by slaves, then it surfaced as a gospel tune first published by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901 as “I’ll Overcome Someday.” Later the song, sung in a faster tempo, was used as part of political protest in 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina as part of a strike by tobacco workers.
A few years later in 1947 the tobacco union activists attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee with local African-American activists and shared the song with them. Zilphia Horton, Highlander’s musical director started using it in workshops. In an audio documentary produced by NPR, Horton described the song as,
A spiritual, sung by many different nationality groups. And it’s so simple. The idea is so sincere that it doesn’t matter that it comes from tobacco workers. When I sing it for people it becomes their song. –Zilphia Horton
Horton eventually sang the song for musician Pete Seeger. The music and lyrics were then published in a music magazine and popularized. Guy Carawan was another musician who eventually learned the song at a workshop at Highlander. He and others began singing the song at protests and it became an unofficial anthem for the movement. The influence and power of the song reached an apex when President Johnson used the phrase as part of a speech when he called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Johnson’s use of the phrase “we shall overcome,” was a direct and explicit show of support for the Voting Rights Act and for Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
While the song was symbolic and appropriated by politics at times, its real power was felt at the numerous demonstrations where people stood and marched for long hours. The song has taken many forms and been arranged by countless musicians. Below are some different versions of it.