“We Shall Overcome” has been a civil rights song for more than 50 years now, heard not just in the U.S. but in North Korea, Beirut, Tiananmen Square, and South Africa’s Soweto Township. It began as a folk song, a work song. So when did the song cross over from the sacred to the secular? There was a strike against the American Tobacco Company. Making 45 cents an hour, the workers wanted a raise. They marched and sang together on the picket line,
“We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.” –Zilphia Horton
A labor organizer and musician learned the song from two of the strikers, and Pete Seeger learned it from her.
Pete Seeger Lived the Song
Pete Seeger was a folk singer and activist who adopted and helped popularize “We Shall Overcome” by teaching the song at rallies and protests. Many people would say he was a good man. You can’t describe a musician like that without seeming simplistic. Music is often advanced by inconsistent, unstable, stylish narcissists. Seeger, otherwise, engraved his name in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, and humility. Of course, when things got rough, showed an exceptional bravery. Outstandingly, he was one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer.
The song is most closely associated with Seeger changing the opening line from “We will overcome” to “we shall overcome.” But, it was Guy Carawan who played it during a meeting of the growing Civil Rights in April 1960. Over the succeeding decades, various artists published and recorded numerous times.
Its Emotional Feeling, Inspiring Unity, and Hope
Through the years, the oral tradition developed “We Shall Overcome” a life of its own. The lyrics are more focused on the salvation of the individual by God, rather than the power of joint action. It gives an opinion to a movement and its distinctiveness is united with the aspirations of people. It is not a marching song and is not necessarily rebellious. Instead, it speaks a promise,
“We shall overcome someday,
Deep in my heart, I do believe.”
Powerful as it is, it has reached far and endured impact on people all over the planet seeking basic human rights and freedom.