The Enduring Power of ‘We Shall Overcome’

Hand-lettered version of the song
Hand-lettered version of the song

When Rep. John Lewis and his colleagues sang “We Shall Overcome” at the U.S. House of Representatives a few weeks ago, some jeered, some laughed, some taunted. Paul Ryan’s attempt to frame the sit-in as a publicity move was echoed by others on the right, who called for Lewis and his cohorts to #StoptheStunt.

That’s okay. Lewis has heard it all before – and worse – when he’s sung this song. He has the scars to prove it. He just kept singing.

The Democratic Sit-Down Demonstration of June 2016 provided a much-needed reminder that some things are worth singing about.

When the awful, unthinkable news of the Orlando Massacre reached the nation’s capital, members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. met outside the White House, linked arms, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Doubtless, some scoffed then as well, or tried to drown out the chorus’s song with negative commentary.

It didn’t work.

People have been trying to shout down “We Shall Overcome” for more than seven decades, and like those who sing it, the song has endured.

The song combines bits of the old Baptist hymn “I’ll Be Alright” and C. A. Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Someday” among others. Zilphia Horton of the famed Highlander Folk School of Tennessee said she first heard the patchworked song sung by striking North Carolina tobacco workers in the 1940s. Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger is widely credited with changing the title to “We Shall Overcome” as it was taught to each new generation of Highlander attendees. Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. are among those who heard it at Highlander. Returning home from Highlander’s 25th anniversary in 1957, King told Anne Braden and Ralph Abernathy, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.”

Singer-activists Guy and Candie Carawan continued the spread of “We Shall Overcome” and by the time the Spring 1960 sit-ins began, the song was well-known and widely sung by those involved in the civil rights movement. Even as early as the protests in Albany, Georgia, the tradition of standing with crossed arms and singing the song at the close of each movement meeting was well in place. To this day, it remains the only civil rights song that is sung solemnly, unaccompanied by the elaborate, rhythmic clapping that characterizes many protest songs at demonstrations, marches, and church gatherings.

From the beginning, “We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the civil rights movement, traveling with supporters from Birmingham to Washington, D.C., to Selma to Chicago to Memphis and a thousand movement sites in between. Most of the time, it was sung without a song-leader. Someone would shout out a line — “Black and white together!” — and the rest of the congregation or marchers or prisoners would incorporate it and sing along.

There is a host of extraordinary freedom songs, including “Up Above My Head, I See Freedom in the Air,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh Freedom,” “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do,” “Amen,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” There are freedom songs that were adapted from old union songs, including “We Shall Not be Moved” and “Which Side Are You On!” But there is only one “We Shall Overcome,” and Rep. John Lewis knows it well.

He has sung it at every movement site, in every possible environment. He sang it before menacing mobs, before leering prison guards, and in hushed African American churches in rural Mississippi and Alabama. He sang it, bleeding and battered, in the bloody aftermath of the Edmund Pettus Bridge attack in Selma.

“The music created a sense of solidarity,” Lewis once told me, “it brought us all together. When there was a sit-in, or a stand-in at a theater, on Freedom Rides, we would sing and sing and sing because when you have some sense that troubles — there was a possibility that you were going to be arrested or jailed or beaten, it just gave you the faith, the encouragement to keep going.”

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SOURCE: Dallas News
Robert F. Darden is a professor of journalism at Baylor University. His book Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City will be out in September.

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