We Shall Overcome
You’d think, because different political movements have different specific goals and details,
that a universal song of struggle would be impossible, and, for the most part, you'd be right.
But nothing comes closer than "We Shall Overcome."
Today, most people think it's a traditional Negro spiritual, but that isn't the case.
Spirituals evolved out of the slave experiences of African Americans and often focus on
liberation and deliverance, with the lyrics usually in coded form, because you wouldn't want
the wrong person to hear you singing them. "We Shall Overcome," as it's sung today, is derived
from a hymn, "I'll Overcome Some Day," by Charles Albert Tindley, born around 1851 to slave
parents in Maryland. A minister who for years preached at the Bainbridge Street Methodist
Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (it was subsequently renamed Tindley Temple in his honor), he
noted the lack of hymns by members of his denomination and did something about it. Only about
50 of his compositions are known to exist, but among them are some of the best known in the
field of gospel: "What Are They Doing in Heaven?," "We'll Understand It Better By and By,"
"Stand By Me," and " Leave It There."
"I'll Overcome Some Day" was initially published in 1901, in the first collection of original
African-American sacred music, and quickly adopted, as were Tindley's other hymns, by black
congregations across the United States. More than many of his other songs, it lends itself to
mass singing: it's slow-paced, it has a narrow range so no part is too high or too low for
people with ordinary voices, and the verse, "If in my heart, I do not yield," gives the
congregation a chance to really boom it out.
It was almost inevitable that a song like this would be taken up by the civil rights movement
in the United States, since the impetus for the movement came from a number of different
sources, including two where the song was sung often. The first, obviously, was the black
church, which produced leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. The second was less obvious -- the
left wing of the labor movement. Singing has always played a part in the American labor
movement (see "The Preacher and the Slave"), and a considerable body of songs of resistance had
come into being in the 1930s. A number of urban intellectuals contributed to the labor
movement, and they felt a need to understand and experience the life and ways of the people
they were talking to.
That's how the Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle, Tennessee, a place where adults could
learn from one another across class and racial lines, came into being. Among those who attended
the school's integrated workshops were Pete Seeger and Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to
move to the back of a Montgomery bus is often seen as the spark that kindled the civil rights
movement outside the courtroom battles that were going on at the time. Seeger was taught the
song by Zilphia Horton, the wife of Highlander's cofounder, who had learned it in the late