We Shall Overcome
Birth of a Freedom Anthem
Article published on 16 March 2017
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FRESNO, Calif. — FIFTYtwo years ago today, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced plans to submit a new voting rights bill before a joint session of Congress. His speech came after several weeks of violence in and around Selma, Ala., that had taken the lives of two civil rights activists and left dozens of others bloodied. Seventy million Americans watched on television as Johnson, a Texas Democrat who had supported segregationist policies early in his career, proclaimed racial discrimination not a “Negro problem” but “an American problem.” It is not, he said, “just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then, after a pause, he added, “And we shall overcome.”

Few Americans could have missed the significance of these four words. Since the early 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” had served as the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Protesters sang the song during the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign and the demonstrations in Selma. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. watched the broadcast in a Selma living room, a tear ran down his cheek.

And yet encapsulated in this famous song is a story that escaped many Americans then, and that continues to escape many today, one that should not be lost as we commemorate the golden era of the civil rights movement.

“We Shall Overcome” has roots in the antebellum period, when slaves sang “No More Auction Block,” a spiritual with a similar message and tune. By the late 19th century, black churchgoers across the South embraced “I’ll Be All Right,” a song almost identical in rhythm and melody to the civil rights anthem. And in 1900 a black Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a hymn titled “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” which included the line, “If in my heart, I do not yield, I’ll o-vercome some day.”

But “We Shall Overcome” antecedents weren’t confined to black churches. In the first half of the 20th century, Southern labor activists took them up, too. When coal mine operators in Birmingham, Ala., proposed a wage cut in 1908, more than 10,000 black and white members of District 20 of the United Mine Workers defied the dictates of segregation and the heavy hand of company guards and state troops and staged a two-month strike. Although the union was defeated, the laborers sustained themselves throughout their ordeal by singing “We Will Overcome Some Day.”

“Dear Brothers,” one miner entreated in 1909, “let us not drop that old song, but still sing it. If we stick together we will overcome some day.”

His prediction was tested four decades later in Charleston, S.C., when 1,100 black and white employees of the American Tobacco Company cigar factory struck for higher pay and better working conditions. For five cold and rainy months starting in October 1945, the picketers, most of whom were African-American women, marched from dawn until dusk. Each night Lucille Simmons, a black laborer with a captivating alto voice, led the protesters in singing “I Will Overcome,” a later version of “I’ll Be All Right,” to boost morale. Along the way, strikers crafted new verses — “we will win our rights,” “we will win this fight,” “we will overcome” — that gave the song still greater collective and political meaning.

The tobacco strike ended in March 1946 with the protesters’ gaining modest concessions. Not long after, a few participants, including an African-American woman named Anna Lee Bonneau, traveled to the Highlander Folk School in the rolling foothills of southeastern Tennessee, where they shared their song with the school’s white music director, Zilphia Horton. Co-founded in 1932 by Ms. Horton’s husband, Myles, Highlander brought union organizers together for interracial residential workshops. Zilphia made music a staple of the curriculum and, over the next decade, she taught “We Will Overcome” to countless labor and civil rights activists, among them the folk singer Pete Seeger, who changed its chorus and title to “We Shall Overcome.” During Highlander’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1957, Seeger performed the song for King, who remarked the following day, “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”

Three years later, Guy Carawan, a white California folklorist who succeeded Zilphia Horton as Highlander’s music director, introduced “We Shall Overcome” to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at their founding meeting in Raleigh, N.C. The song spread quickly, its redemptive message ringing out from picket lines, Freedom Rides and jail cells. It became the “Marseillaise” of the civil rights movement.

The story of “We Shall Overcome” illuminates the rich history of the black freedom struggle. The movement did not, as popular memory would have it, begin in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and end when Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. Nor were its proponents focused solely on civil and political discrimination. Instead, the civil rights movement built on a vibrant interracial unionism that had challenged the South’s low-wage economy for a half century. This “long civil rights movement,” as historians call it, intertwined issues of race and class, insisting that economic disenfranchisement was neither separate from, nor less important than, political disenfranchisement.

This is not to minimize the significance of the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, in light of recent efforts to restrict black access to the polls — abetted by the 2013 Supreme Court decision that freed some states to change their voting laws without federal approval — celebrating, and defending, this measure seems more important than ever.

But an accurate rendering of the civil rights movement must include more than victories like the Voting Rights Act. From the coal fields of Birmingham to the foothills of Tennessee to the streets of Selma, those who sang “We Shall Overcome” sought rights and opportunities that extended far beyond the ballot box.

Johnson said as much in his 1965 speech when he observed, “Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”

In our era of rising economic inequality, racial polarization and hostility to organized labor — when 27 percent of African-Americans live in poverty — it is important to remember everything that earlier protesters fought to overcome.

Only then will we see contemporary struggles for economic justice, such as fast-food workers’ demands for a higher minimum wage and union rights, as part of a century-old civil rights movement. Only then will we hear the movement’s signature song not just as a source of reassurance, a comforting reminder of toppled barriers and laws overturned, but as a call to action against the problems that remain.

Ethan J. Kytle, the author of “Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era,” and Blain Roberts, the author of “Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South,” are associate professors of history at California State University, Fresno. They are writing a book about the memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C.

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