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"We Shall Overcome" (15337 hits)

"We Shall Overcome"

Background and Summary

"We Shall Overcome" is a protest song that became a key anthem of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The song is derived from a gospel song, possibly a 1903 song by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia, containing the repeated line "I'll overcome some day," but it was more likely from a later gospel song containing the lines: "Deep in my heart, I do believe, I'll overcome some day." However, there are also earlier acknowledgements of the lyrics as, with Pete Seeger, one of the first artists to record the song noted.  Apparently various versions can be traced to integrated meetings of Black and White coal miners in the early 1900s, as well as Black church hymns in the 1800s.

According to James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk,  Tindley wrote words that are very similar to the song we now know, but his melody was very different. Sometime between 1900 and 1946, someone married Tindley's words to a 1794 hymn called "O Sanctissima." Atron Twigg is believed to be the person responsible for making the union.

From Hymn to Humdinger

In 1946, in Charleston, S.C., striking employees of the American Tobacco Company, mostly Black women, were singing hymns on the picket line. A woman named Lucille Simmons sang a slow "long meter style" version of the song, as "We'll Overcome." Zilphia Horton, a White woman and the wife of the co-founder of the Highlander Folk School, later named the Highlander Research and Education Center) learned it from her. The following year she taught it to Seeger.

Seeger, or possibly Septima Clark, changed "We will overcome" to "We shall overcome." He added a few verses: "We'll walk hand in hand," "The whole wide world around," and taught it to Californian singer Frank Hamilton, who in turn taught it to Guy Carawan, who re-introduced it to Highlander in 1959. In the PBS video We Shall Overcome, Julian Bond credits Carawan with teaching and singing the song at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, N.C., in 1960. From there, it spread orally and became an anthem of Southern Black labor union and civil rights activists.

Beginning in 1963, “We Shall Overcome” was often associated with Joan Baez, who recorded and performed it at a number of civil rights marches, and years later at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the phrase "We shall overcome" in a famous speech before Congress.

The Song That Travelled the World

 The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association used the phrase during their marches and named the organization’s retrospective autobiography, We Shall Overcome - The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968-1978. The film, Bloody Sunday, depicts march leader Ivan Cooper and his followers singing the song shortly before the "bloody sunday" shootings. Farmers in the U.S. sang the song in Spanish during the strikes and grape boycotts of the late 1960s. Bruce Springsteen re-interpreted the song, which has been included on Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Tribute to Pete Seeger, and his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

In 1999, National Public Radio included the song in the "NPR 100," in which NPR's music editors sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century. The song later found its way to South Africa in the later years of the anti-apartheid movement. The song was notably sung by the then-New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who led anti-apartheid crowds in choruses of “We Shall Overcome” from the rooftop of his car whilst touring the country in 1966.

It was also the song Abie Nathan, Israeli humanitarian and peace activist, chose to play at the closing of his radio station broadcast, Voice of Peace, on October 1, 1993. In India, its Hindi translation, "Hum Honge Kaamyab / Ek Din," became a patriotic and spiritual song during the 1980s, particularly in schools, and the song's popularity has continued to endure.

In the Bengali-speaking region of India and in Bangladesh there are actually two versions, both of which are incredibly popular among school-children and political activists. "Amra Karbo Joy" (a literal translation) was translated by the Bengali folk singer Hemanga Biswas and re-recorded by Bhupen Hazarika. Another version, translated by Shibdas Bandyopadhyay, "Ek Din Surjyer Bhor" (literally translated as "One Day The Sun Will Rise") was recorded by the Calcutta Youth Choir arranged by Ruma Guha Thakurta during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence and became one of the largest selling Bengali records of all time. It was a favorite song of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and was regularly sung at public events after Bangladesh gained independence.

In the Indian State of Kerala, the traditionally Communist stronghold, the song became popular on college campuses in late 1970s. It was the anthem of the Students Federation of India, the largest student organisation in the country. The song translated to the regional language Malayalam as “Njangal Vijayikkum...... Oru Nal” was by N. P. Chandrasekharan, an activist of SFI, in 1980. The translation followed the same Melody of the original version.

Copyright and Royalties

Copyright on the song is held by Seeger, Carawan and Hamilton. Seeger explained that he took out a defensive copyright on advice from his publisher to prevent someone else from doing so and "At that time we didn't know Lucille Simmons' name." All royalties from the song go to the "We Shall Overcome" Fund, administered by Highlander and used to give small grants for cultural expression involving Black organizing in the U.S. South. 


We shall overcome, we shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.

The Lord will see us through, The Lord will see us through,

The Lord will see us through someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.

We're on to victory, We're on to victory,

We're on to victory someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We're on to victory someday.

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,

We'll walk hand in hand someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We'll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,

We are not afraid today;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We are not afraid today.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,

The truth shall make us free someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

The truth shall make us free someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,

We shall live in peace someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall live in peace someday.

Sources:;;; Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy : His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 322;; Dunaway, David, How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, DaCapo, New York, 1981.

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Thursday, February 7th 2008 at 4:52PM
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