Story and Origins of Famous Songs We Shall Overcome

About the history, origins, and story behind the popular gospel hymn We Shall Overcome.


"WE SHALL OVERCOME," Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger--1960

"We Shall Overcome" began as a gospel hymn and union song, but it was transformed by its four authors into the rallying cry of the black Freedom Movement for civil rights.

The music may derive from a 1794 hymn called "O Sanctissima" or "Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners," though some parts of the song are more recent. The words "I'll overcome some day" first appeared in a hymn by C. Albert Tindley and Rev. A. R. Shockly in New Songs of the Gospel (1900); however, the tune was not the one we associate with the present-day song.

In 1945, the words and tune came together in a song called "I'll Overcome Some Day," with additional words by Atron Twigg and a revised musical arrangement by Kenneth Morris, a Chicago gospel singer. Roberta Martin wrote another version, the last 12 bars of which are part of the current version of "We Shall Overcome."

Zilphia Horton, wife of the founder of Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., first heard the song in October, 1945. One story says she joined a picket line of the CIO Food and Tobacco Workers' strike in Charleston, S.C., on a cold winter's day and heard it then. Another story says that two of the picketers came to a labor workshop at the school and sang it for her. Whichever story is true, we do know that she did hear the song and turned it into a union song. Later she taught it to Pete Seeger, the folksinger. She also sang it up north and added more verses ("We'll walk hand in hand" is one of these). Folksinger Frank Hamilton popularized the song, as did Guy Carawan, another white folksinger, who sang it to the black students who protested "white only" restaurants with sit-ins.

The song was recorded in 1950 by Joe Glazer and the Elm City Four and released by the CIO Dept. of Education and Research. When the song was published in 1960, the four authors dedicated it to the Freedom Movement and designated that all royalties resulting from its sale were to go to the movement. The popular version of the song is copyrighted under the names of Horton, Hamilton, Carawan, and Seeger.

"We Shall Overcome" was the song of the Freedom Movement. People sang its powerful, almost hypnotic lyrics--often repeating verses after a song leader--with their arms linked, as they swayed back and forth.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the song lent unity to the Freedom Movement. Mrs. Viola Luizzo, a white civil rights worker murdered in Alabama in 1965, sang "We Shall Overcome" as she lay dying. So did John Harris as he stood on the gallows of the prison in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Apr. 1, 1965, waiting to be hanged. It has been suppressed in South Africa ever since.

"We Shall Overcome" is no longer considered the anthem of the black movement. New, more militant groups are not willing to wait until "someday" for things to happen.

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