The Inspiring History of the Song ‘We Shall Overcome’

Posted By Levi

August 28th, 2013 7:40pm

Martin Luther King

From NPR’s All Things Considered:

It is not a marching song. It is not necessarily defiant. It is a promise: “We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe.”

It has been a civil rights song for 50 years now, heard not just in the U.S. but in North Korea, in Beirut, in Tiananmen Square, in South Africa’s Soweto Township. But “We Shall Overcome” began as a folk song, a work song. Slaves in the fields would sing, ‘I’ll be all right someday.’ It became known in the churches. A Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a version in 1901: “I’ll Overcome Someday.”

The first political use came in 1945 in Charleston, S.C. There was a strike against the American Tobacco Co. The workers wanted a raise; they were making 45 cents an hour. They marched and sang together on the picket line, “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.” . . .

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appeared before Congress and 70 million Americans watching on television, calling for legislation that would ensure every citizen the right to vote.

“It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” Johnson declared in the speech. “Their cause must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

There may have been some in the civil rights movement who felt that President Johnson co-opted the phrase. But John Lewis watched the speech that night with Martin Luther King Jr. About the president, Lewis later wrote, “His were the words of a statesman and, more, they were the words of a poet,” adding, “Dr. King must have agreed. He wiped away a tear at the point where Johnson said the words ‘We shall overcome.’ ”

“It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear,” Lewis says. “You were prepared to march into hell’s fire.”

The song was carried by the civil rights movement throughout the South, a song that rose in air that was tinged with tear gas, that was a murmur of men and women at night in a Southern jail, and an affirmation sung by hundreds of thousands within sight of the Capitol dome.

And its power and promise turned up in the speeches and sermons of King — including one on March 31, 1968, just days before his death.

“There’s a little song that we sing in our movement down in the South. I don’t know if you’ve heard it,” King told the Memphis crowd. “You know, I’ve joined hands so often with students and others behind jail bars singing it: ‘We shall overcome.’ Sometimes we’ve had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it: ‘We shall overcome.’ Oh, before this victory’s won, some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but we shall overcome.”

Listen to the history of the song here.

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