Tuesday, July 4, 2017

`We Shall Overcome' Civil Rights Protest Folk Song's History Revisited

The 1960's civil rights movement anthem, "We Shall Overcome", was probably the most widely-sung protest folk song that civil rights movement demonstrators sang at street and church rallies, street protest marches and at their restaurant sit-ins, when they were engaged in acts of non-violent civil disobedience during the 1960's.

In 1901, Rev. Charles Tindley composed a folk song, "I'll Overcome Some Day," to the tune of the "I'll Be All Right" slave spiritual that was derived from the tune of "O Sanctissima," an 18th-century European hymn. Decades later, during a strike by American Tobacco factory workers in 1945, while on a picket line of African-American workers, Lucille Simmons changed the "I'll overcome" lyric to "We will overcome" or "We shall overcome" and sang the "I'll Overcome Some Day" tune more slowly. And in 1947, as "We Shall Overcome," the new version reached Zilphia Horton at the Highlander Folk School, which trained civil rights movement and labor movement organizers and activists in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's.

At the Highlander Folk School during the 1950's and early 1960's, folksinger and civil rights movement activist Guy Carawan then taught the "We Shall Overcome" protest folk song to civil rights movement activists and organizers, including those who were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] in the early 1960's; and Pete Seeger also began to popularize the "We Shall Overcome" protest folk song during the 1950's and early 1960's.

According to Hardeep Phull's 2008 book, Story Behind The Protest Song, in the late 1950's or 1960's "Seeger's manager Harold Leventhal advised" Pete "that a copyright should be taken out on `We Shall Overcome'" and "it was also decided that the proceeds would be donated to...SNCC;" and since "SNCC's demise" in the late 1960's "proceeds go to the Highlander Research and Education Center."