We Shall Overcome

Quick Reference

The most prominent freedom song of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” has origins in African American spirituals and has been used in a range of protest movements. The song emerged from multiple sources, including the old spiritual “I Will Overcome” and the church hymn “I'll Overcome Someday” (published in 1901 by Reverend C. A. Tindley). Striking African American tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, used an early version of the song on picket lines in 1945. It achieved wider use as a labor song after two of those union members brought the song to Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee training center for labor and civil rights organizers. In the 1960s student activists in the South used the song at sit-in demonstrations for desegregation. As its use spread,“We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the civil rights movement, sung at demonstrations, police confrontations, mass meetings, and national events like the 1963 Freedom March in Washington, D.C. In addition to its continued use as a protest song in the United States, it is heard throughout the world in a variety of resistance movements. The adaptability and endurance of this song reveals the continuity of African American folk and spirituals, their ability to be reborn and to reappear in different forms and contexts. While drawing upon the tradition of African American congregational-style singing, various arrangements or styles have marked the song's appearance at different moments (in church, jail, or a mass demonstration; for desegregation, labor, or peace efforts), and new lyrics have been included to suit the occasion (during an armed police raid in Tennessee, for example, teenager Jamila Jones introduced the line “We are not afraid"). “We Shall Overcome” served as a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement and continues to function as a tool of solidarity and resistance.

Guy Carawan and Candie Carawan, We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement, 1963.Bernice Johnson Reagon, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, sound recording and accompanying text, Smithsonian Institution, 1980.Jim Brown et al., We Shall Overcome: The Song that Moved a Nation, video documentary, California Newsreel, 1989.

Christina Accomando

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries