"Something about that song haunts you"

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing "We Shall Overcome" at Palmer's Crossing Community Center, August 4, Freedom Summer, 1964, photographed by Herbert Randall, more here and here.)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Zilphia Horton singing on a picket line in the 1940s, from the Highlander Research and Education Center photo collection, via this article.)

It's been years since I first noticed that less and less people were joining in every time somebody would start to sing "We Shall Overcome" as a protest. Like marching itself, the anthem of the Civil Rights movement is boring work. Slow and mournful, it lacks the backbeat of "Eyes on the Prize," another movement song with a parallel history. "We Shall Overcome" can be thumping and repetitive, like Woody Guthrie's "This Land as Your Land," but also spellbinding, like my father's own "They'll Know We Are Christians (By Our Love)." It is so overloaded with historical significance, and that significance is so intimately connected with real and unfathomable courage and trauma, that singing the tune can be deeply moving, or deeply embarrassing, or both at the same time.

"Simple strains and dogged sincerity made the hymn suitable for crisis, mourning, and celebration alike," writes Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters: America In the King Years 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1988), describing the tune's rapid spread through the student sit-in movement of 1960 after an April workshop at Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.

Yet today the tune's unfunky earnestness seems stranded in its era even as the lyrics are being taught in Arabic and Chinese. People everywhere else seem to believe this song still has something to tell them, even if Americans have heard it all. The communal and universalist "we" is a relic of starchy, Kennedy-era idealism (who's "we" paleface?), as annihilated by hip as the turtle-necked folkie's acoustic guitar in Animal House--the one John Belushi smashes after hearing a few verses of "I Gave My Love a Cherry."

Even Bruce Springsteen, who'll play the song on Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center, can only bring himself to revive "We Shall Overcome" as a love ballad, on his new album-length tribute to Pete Seeger--the man who helped make the tune an international protest staple. (See reviews here, here, and here.) You'd have to go back to 1968 to find another good recording of the song, specifically to the Maytals and Marion Williams--the former a Jamaican reggae 45 cut in 1968 (probably not long after Martin Luther King's assassination, and certainly before the new genre had a name), and the latter re-imagined as a cut-time gospel workout. (Though Beenie Man deserves a mention for effort. Here's a "We Shall Overcome" discography, with audio sources here.)

So why even learn about "We Shall Overcome"? Because it has a history worth knowing, and the truth of that history is worth defending, and not just in the way you protectively indulge grandparents their remembrances. Songs that function socially, evolving in the mouths of different singers without ever being recorded, don't really exist anymore, except on the playground--the last true bastion of un-self-conscious folk culture. In the era of A Mighty Wind (a parody my folk-mass singing dad thought was hilarious, by the way), what do young people make of a figure like Seeger?

(Pete Seeger playing for sailors in the 1940s)

The man turned 87 recently, a persistence of breath that might frustrate his anti-Communist attackers, forever revving the obit. Writing in last summer's City Journal, Howard Husock traced indigenous American radicalism to its only possible source--Moscow--and framed left-wing Yankee folk music as just another Popular Front strategy, with Seeger the key figure in this deception (see "America's Most Successful Communist" by Howard Husock, City Journal, Summer 2005). By way of example, he offered:

Another Popular Front success from this period was the 1937 reworking, at Tennessee's communist-founded Highlander Folk School, of the traditional black gospel number "I Will Overcome" into "We Shall Overcome," soon a labor rallying song.

The only problem with that sentence is that just about every part of it is false. Highlander was "communist-founded" (note the bet-hedging lower-case "c") only in the sense that Booker T. and the M.G.'s were a "white band." One of the people who started the Appalachian folk school in 1932, Don West, was a member of the Communist Party, but he had moved on by the time the school received its charter in 1934. Principle founder Myles Horton, who ran the school through the 1960s, never joined the party (though even this has been spun). Horton studied under theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the intellectual godfathers of anticommunism, and a key figure in the intellectual development of Martin Luther King, Jr. Niebuhr himself raised start-up funds for Highlander, enlisting help from International YMCA Secretary Sherwood Eddy ("YMCA-founded"?), and two of Niebuhr's graduate students became teachers at the school.

After decades of criminal, legal, and media attacks on Highlander by the political allies of the Ku Klux Klan, no evidence has been brought to light to support the segregationist slander that the institution was a "finishing school for communists." (Larded with mild accusations from unnamed informers, the FBI files are a joke.) Today the Highlander Research and Education Center stands 20 miles east of Knoxville, outliving a campaign that long ago should have blown back on those playing the guilt-by-association game (see "Myles Horton (1905-90), Educator and Social Activist of Highlander Adult Education Center, Tennessee" by Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker, April 10, 2006 blog; and "Myles Horton, Civil Rights Leader and Teacher, Dead at 84," by Rob Wells, Associated Press, January 20, 1990).

(Myles Horton)

The rest of the "Popular Front success" sentence is simply wrong: The song "I Will Overcome" was not reworked into a political anthem at Highlander, and it wasn't reworked in 1937.

The actual origins of the tune, not to mention where Seeger took it, argue the opposite of Husock's thesis that radical folk music was somehow a foreign plot. "We Shall Overcome" is more American than the national anthem, and became more international and universal through the Civil Rights movement. Its political transformation occurred on a tobacco picket line in 1946, well before arriving at Highlander the following year. Seeger was a member of the Communist Party between 1942 and 1950 (a period during which he also served in WWII, singing to hospitalized troops in Saipan), giving the international Communist conspiracy about four years of overlap with the song. Seven years after Seeger left the CPUSA, he sang "We Shall Overcome" for Martin Luther King at Highlander. Eventually, Seeger sang it in East Berlin as well, and in the Soviet Union, where it became a popular anthem of resistance to Communist rule.

(See "Pete Seeger: Still Singing for Peace," by John W. Barry, Poughkeepsie Journal, April 27, 2003; "Pete Seeger: Despite his best efforts, this radical is finding honors are being added to his fame," Laura Outerbridge, The Washington Times, November 28, 1994; "Life from the left: Folk icon Pete Seeger tells staff writer Jeffrey Weiss about his years as a communist," Jeffrey Weiss, Dallas Morning News, July 17, 2005; How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, by Pete Seeger with David Dunaway, Da Capo 1981/1990, as cited by Wikipedia; Susanne's Folksong-Notizen, also cited in Wikipedia.)

Husock concludes:

Happily, some have embraced the Popular Front's legacy in ways that Seeger probably didn't anticipate and wouldn't likely approve. In March, a crowd in Taipei, several hundred thousand-strong, sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind" as part of a protest against forcible annexation by mainland China--and the prospect of Communist Party rule.

You have to wonder whether the writer ever stopped to consider how these songs reached the Communist world in the first place.

When Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, "he was grilled on whether he was a communist," writes David Corn. "Seeger declined to talk about his political associations or ideas, but offered to tell the committee what songs he had sung in public. The committee was not amused" (see "Springsteen Does Seeger," David Corn, The Nation, March 6, 2006). What the singer actually said was:

I will tell you what my answer is. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Chairman WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution.

(Read the full transcript.)

I've seen Seeger sing many times, and I interviewed him in 1993. I've never once heard him talk about the wonders of Communism. As he said half a century ago, his songs speak for themselves.

"We Shall Overcome" says more than most. It had existed in one form or another for as long as a century before it was copyrighted in 1963 by Seeger and three other white Civil Rights and labor activists associated with Highlander: Zilphia Johnson Horton (Myles Horton's first wife), who first transcribed it; Guy Carawan, who taught the song to sit-in students and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founders in 1960; and Frank Hamilton, who taught the song to Carawan (see "The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History" by Caryle Murphy Washington Post, January 17, 1988). This version of the tune, whose royalties go to a Highlander "We Shall Overcome" Fund for "grassroots efforts within African American communities to use art and activism against injustice," has become standard:


Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall/will overcome some day

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
Some day

We'll walk hand in hand
Some day

We shall live in peace
Some day

We are not afraid

The whole wide world around
Some day

"Something about that song haunts you"

There's inevitable mystery at the heart of the question of where this song comes from, but also unnecessary confusion. In The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), for instance, Eileen Southern cites different lyrics than those above:

"We shall overcome/We shall overcome/We shall overcome some day/For I know in my heart/It will come true/We shall overcome some day"

She doesn't offer a source for these lyrics, though she does recommend James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (Dover, 1966/1995), still the definitive study of the song's early beginnings. The assertions that follow are as fascinating, and similarly un-sourced:

Its opening and closing phrases point back to the old spiritual "No More Auction Block for Me"... The middle section of the freedom song seems to be a contemporary insertion. The text of the song apparently derived from Charles Tindley's gospel song "I'll Overcome Some Day" [circa 1900]... and there are musical similarities as well between the gospel and freedom songs.

My only problem with the above is that the transcribed melody of Tindley's tune sounds exactly nothing like "We Shall Overcome," which should be no small detail in music historiography. (It sounds slightly more like "No More Auction Block For Me," but is still distinct, and was apparently sung alongside that number as a different song.)

"Something about that song haunts you"

Set to an entirely different melody, the lyrics of Tindley's pre-gospel composition do read similarly: "I'll overcome some day/I'll overcome some day/If in my heart/I do not yield/I'll overcome some day." (The words first appeared in 1900's New Songs of the Gospel, where the hymn was credited to C. Albert Tindley and Rev. A. R. Shockly, according to The People's Almanac.)

Given the lyrical closeness, you can understand why historians less agnostic on the question than Southern have strayed further from the obvious fact that these are simply different songs. I'd include here everyone from Taylor Branch to Seeger himself (co-writing his autobiography). One very human reason for linking "We Shall Overcome" to Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day" is the simple one that doing so gives the song a person and biography to credit--Charles Albert Tindley, Methodist minister from Philadelphia. Tindley, as Branch writes, "was a prime influence on Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of modern gospel music." He also wrote "Stand By Me," which Ben E. King of the Drifters adapted for popular music (see Parting the Waters; and "Song of History, Song of Freedom," Mike Hudson, The Roanoke Times, January 14, 2001).

The more likely root of the song is "I'll Be All Right," which is sometimes written as "I Will Be All Right" or spelled "Alright" rather than "All Right." (Memories of the religious lyrics similarly vary: "We will meet the lord someday," "I'll see His face, I'll be like Him, I shall overcome some day.") According to Fuld, and to David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace's 1975 book The People's Almanac, the opening bars of the melody appear to derive from a hymn first published in 1794, "O Sanctissima," a European Christmas carol sung in Latin that in turn lifted its melody from "Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners" (or "The Sicilian Mariner's Hymn to the Virgin," or "Sicilian Mariner's Prayer"). One listen to "O Sanctissima" will confirm the match to "We Shall Overcome."

(folk music fan Johann Gottfried von Herder)

Johann Gottfried von Herder--the German philosopher, theologian, and international folk music champion--seems to have brought the "Sicilian Mariner" tune to Germany in 1788 after a trip to Italy, and the song gained a second life there as a popular Christmas hymn ("O du Frohliche," sung today in English as "O How Joyfully"), after Johannes Daniel Falk gave it German lyrics in 1816. The following year, Beethoven arranged "O Sanctissima" for strings (see The People's Almanac, by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, Doubleday, 1975, reproduced here; and this page at www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com).

The melody, or a modern version of it, was adapted to new lyrics as "I'll Be All Right" in the days of American slavery, before its likely author could have laid legal claim to much of anything, least of all songwriting credit. Yet this hymn, which became popular in Southern black Baptist and Methodist churches in the early part of the 20th Century, eventually came to contain the lines "Deep in my heart, I do believe/I'll overcome some day" (see How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, as cited by Wikipedia). Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, director of the black American culture program at the National Museum of American History (and one of the founding members of the Freedom Singers), believes that by the time "I'll Be All Right" reached the American Tobacco strike of 1945-'46, it was being called "I Will Overcome" or "I'll Overcome" in some parts of the country.

This jibes with The Book of World-Famous Music, which reports that "I'll Overcome Someday" with its contemporary, non-Tindley melody was published on May 1, 1945 by Martin and Morris Music Studio in Chicago, with original words by Atron Twigg, and revised music and lyrics by Chicago gospel arranger and publisher Kenneth Morris (1917-1988). The People's Almanac refers to the title as "I'll Overcome Some Day," calls the words by Twigg "additional," and credits Morris only with the arrangement, but adds that Chicago gospel legend "Roberta Martin [1907-1969] wrote another version, the last 12 bars of which are part of the current version of 'We Shall Overcome.'" Whether the song was inspired by the lyrics in Tindley's remains an open question, but I'd love to answer it.

(See The Book of World-Famous Music, cited here; The People's Almanac;"The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History"; "The History of 'We Shall Overcome'" All Things Considered, January 15, 1999; and "The Martin and Morris Music Company" at History Wired.)

(1946 Lucky Strike advertisement)

(Roi-Tan, "The cigar that breathes")

After black women took up the song as "I'll Overcome" on a Charleston, South Carolina, picket line in 1946, the story becomes clearer and verifiable. The modern chapter of "We Shall Overcome" began in October, 1945, when workers walked out of the American Tobacco plant in Charleston as part of the CIO-affiliated Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Allied Workers Union. These were the folks who replaced the "I" with "we" in the final line of "I'll Be All Right," changing "I will overcome some day" to "We will overcome someday."

At American Tobacco, workers rolled, wrapped, and boxed Roi-Tans on segregated factory floors. "The jobs were so numbingly repetitive that a few workers in the plant had the reputation of being able to doze off and keep at it," writes Bo Petersen in the Post and Courier of Charleston (see "'We Shall Overcome': Civil rights anthem rose to prominence in Charleston strike," September 21, 2003). The reporter interviewed Lillie Mae Marsh Doster, whose job was to label boxes, turn them over, put them in a machine, and ring a bell.

The workers had been asking for 30 cents an hour. "Negotiations had raised the wage from 10 cents to 15 cents," writes Petersen. "Labor unions were on the rise. But for black workers, in a place and time when lynching still loomed as a threat, a strike took a lot of daring. The plant employed more than 2,000. After rounds of 'sit down' work stoppages and negotiations, the majority walked out in late October..."

"Something about that song haunts you"

(National Urban League "We Shall Overcome" Pamphlet, 1963)

"I'll Overcome" (which Petersen identifies, probably incorrectly, as Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day") was a favorite of American Tobacco employee Lucille Simmons, a black woman who sang in the choir at Jerusalem Baptist Church, which supported the strikers.

"Simmons began singing the song to break up the picket line at the end of each day," writes Petersen. "Her voice turned heads. 'She had a beautiful alto voice, and she would holler that song out,' [Delphine] Brown said..."

Simmons sang a slow "long meter style" version of the song, and called it "We'll Overcome" (see Pete Seeger and Peter Blood, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies, Independent Publications Group, Sing Out Publications, 1993, as cited by Wikipedia; and "Guy Carawan uses music for recording social change," Hugh Boulware, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1990.)

Seeger also specifically credits Simmons with changing the "I" to "We," though this reaches back into a period before his direct experience. In any case, others strikers were soon joining in, singing, "Down in our hearts/I do believe/We'll overcome some day."

"You think about that, it's almost like a prayer of relief," Doster told Petersen. "We didn't make up the song. We just started singing it as a struggle song."

As the picketing continued, the lyrics evolved into other variations: "We will organize"; "We will win our rights," and "We will win this fight." "The Lord will see us through" became "The union will see us through," and "We're on to victory" (see the 1988 documentary We Shall Overcome, cited in "We Shall Overcome," Walter Goodman, New York Times, December 6, 1988; and "Employing Music in the Cause of Social Justice: Ruth Crawford Seeger and Zilphia Horton," by Julia Schmidt-Pirro and Karen M. McCurdy, Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Spring-Summer, 2005).

When the strike ended in April 1946, four of every five workers had already gone back to work. Protesters wound up settling for the money they'd been offered in the beginning. "But the cigar factory strike spurred a voter registration drive that made the workers the main source of new black voters in Charleston in the next few years," writes Petersen. And with this new movement went the song.

(Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in Greenwood, Mississippi, July 6, 1963)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing "We Shall Overcome" with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Record of Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome" at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington)

In 1947, a couple of the workers involved in the American Tobacco strike were invited to Highlander folk school, founded 15 years earlier on a farm in Monteagle, Tennessee--a coal-mining town near Chattanooga. One of the few integrated institutions in the South, Highlander had trained union organizers since it opened, working with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and offering a scholarship in Eleanor Roosevelt's name while supporting farmers, textile workers, and coal miners across racial lines. "In the early days, the policy was to welcome anybody who could help build the CIO," said founder Myles Horton. "They didn't care whether you were Communist or reactionary or Catholic or the AFL."

Located in one of the poorest counties in America, Highlander practiced pedagogy of the oppressed long before the activity had the name. "We made it clear that we weren't bringing people together to tell them what to do," said Horton. "We had confidence in their ability to share their experiences and learn from each other and learn to trust their own judgment." A key part of the process was culture. "The school mixed classes on politics and economics with square dances and local lore," wrote Kristina Lindgren in the Los Angeles Times (see "Myles Horton, 84, Founder of Early Civil Rights Center," January 21, 1990).

(Woody Guthrie photographed in June, 1940 at the Highlander Folk School.)

Arriving at Highlander in 1935, union activist Zilphia Johnson took over the school's cultural program and married Myles Horton in the same year. "She had a beautiful alto voice, an unpretentious rare voice, but not the showoff kind," remembered Pete Seeger, who had begun visiting Highlander and playing there with Woody Guthrie before the war. "She brought out the talents of her audience and their enthusiastic participation. Her approach resembled more that of a Black singer and the Black church" (see "Employing Music in the Cause of Social Justice").

Always listening for new songs, Zilphia learned "We'll Overcome" from the visiting American Tobacco workers--who reportedly arrived with separate groups of black and white, and on different occasions, to avoid arousing attention from authorities. Soon, she began singing the song "slower than anybody had heard it," according to Seeger. Zilphia taught the tune to her students, and published "Overcome" in the Highlander Songbook, which was distributed to other union organizers. By 1950, Joe Glazer and the Elm City Four had recorded and released "We Will Overcome" through the CIO Department of Education and Research.

Zilphia also taught the tune to Seeger. "It's the genius of simplicity," he said of the song. "Any damn fool can get complicated. I like to compare it to the backboard in basketball. You bounce your life experiences off it and they come back with new meaning" (see "The Rise Of the Rights Anthem; 'We Shall Overcome': The Song, the History" by Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, January 17, 1988).

Before taking the song back to New York, and on the road to California, Seeger added new verses: "We'll walk hand in hand" and "The whole wide world around." He eventually made another alteration as well. "I changed it to 'We shall,'" he said. "Toshi [Seeger, his wife] kids me that it was my Harvard grammar, but I think I liked a more open sound; 'We will' has alliteration to it, but 'We shall' opens the mouth wider; the 'i' in 'will' is not an easy vowel to sing well" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen, linked by the Wikipedia entry for "We Shall Overcome").

Septima Clark with students.

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Septima Clark, by Erin Currier)

Seeger later questioned his memory, wondering whether the "shall" came from Septima Clark (more here), the Highlander organizer who launched the Citizenship Schools project on South Carolina's Sea Islands in 1956. With the Hortons, Clark had helped teach tens of thousands of poor Southern blacks to read and write, thus enabling them to vote for the first time under Segregationist law (see "Myles Horton, Civil Rights Leader and Teacher, Dead at 84," by Rob Wells, Associated Press, January 20, 1990).

Whoever made the change, "We Shall Overcome" took root at Highlander just when the school was shifting in emphasis from union organizing to what's now thought of as the Civil Rights movement. Seamstress Rosa Parks attended a workshop at Highlander in 1955 before sparking the Montgomery bus boycott (see "Unconventional Folk School Marks 50th Year," Tom Eblen, Associated Press, October 24, 1982). The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the school on September 2, 1957, delivering a keynote speech at the 25th anniversary celebration, where Seeger sang "We Shall Overcome" and played banjo. On the drive to Louisville later that day, King kept humming the tune, then remembered its name. "There's something about that song that haunts you," he said to others in the car (see Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow, Vintage Books, 1986).

(Martin Luther King, Peter Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander's 25th anniversary celebration, Monteagle, TN, 1957)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(1960 propaganda postcard of Martin Luther King Jr., photographed in 1957 during Highlander's 25th anniversary celebration, with Daily Worker correspondent Abner Berry in the foreground with glasses, identified by the FBI as the only known Communist Party member in the photo. To the left of King, going from right to left: Highlander funder Aubrey Williams, founder Myles Horton, unidentified woman, and Rosa Parks. Far left: Pete Seeger's elbow.)

(AFL-CIO button)

Highlander had been under attack from the reactionary right since it first opened, but the school's literacy program brought down the inflamed wrath of segregationists. The few hours King spent at the school on September 2 entered far-right mythology as part of a smear campaign against Highlander, King, and the movement. Photographer Ed Friend had come to the Labor Day Weekend celebration and asked Myles Horton permission to snap photos, and Horton agreed, offering to buy the pictures later. "As the weekend progressed, Horton thought it odd that Friend appeared uninterested in photographing or filming the speeches or meetings and more interested in the interracial socializing, the folk-dancing and swimming," writes Judith Blackburn Bechtel in her online biography of Maurice McCrackin, Building the Beloved Community. "And [Friend] always seemed to be trying to get Abner Berry into photographs."

Berry, unbeknownst to most participants at the conference, was a reporter for the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA (the publication folded the following year). Yet if Berry was quiet about his affiliation, Friend acted purely as a spy for the Georgia Education Commission, established in 1953 for the explicit purpose of preventing school desegregation. (Friend later conned another attendee into copying conference audiotapes for him, and testified against Highlander in a committee hearing of the Tennessee state legislature in Nashville as part of an "investigation" into the school. Read this paper, Bechtel's book, and this book for a fuller account. Note, too, that the prima facie evidence offered for Highlander's Communism was its policy of integration, and the social ease demonstrated between men and women across race lines--inevitably, the hearings focused on charges of interracial sex.)

The Highlander photos were published and distributed by the Georgia Education Commission, and have so thoroughly passed into reactionary lore that they are circulated online to this day.

"They put one of those pictures on billboards all over the South, captioned Highlander... 'Communist Training School,'" remembered Myles Horton. "The John Birch Society and the Governor's Committee of the State of Georgia put them out. They claimed that they spent over a million dollars on billboards. The picture had Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Aubrey Williams, and Septima Clark and me and other people in the front row. And Pete Seeger's elbow. Pete said he came within an elbow's distance of being in the famous picture."

One key piece of recorded evidence was curiously never put into play. "What is so amazing to me," said historian Taylor Branch in 1990, "is that in all this investigation, nobody, insofar as I can find, including the Georgia investigators who took the picture and the FBI agents who interviewed and questioned all the people who were there, recorded what King actually said at the 25th anniversary luncheon."

The tapes were available; they just weren't very helpful. The most salient King passage, as Branch suggested, was the following:

Men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can't communicate with each other; they can't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.

Read the transcript of King's speech here.

During this period, "We Shall Overcome" gained two new verses: "We shall end Jim Crow" and "We shall live in peace." White supremacists viewed these sentiments as contradictory, and, looking at Martin Luther King, saw only fantastic projections of themselves. Captioning the "Communist Training School" photo, the Georgia Commission on Education wrote, "These 'four horsemen' of racial agitation have brought tension, disturbance, strife and violence in their advancement of the Communist doctrine of 'racial nationalism.'" When, of course, it was the Klansmen who rode horseback, and brought down terror in the name of racial nationhood.

One fearful night in July of 1959, a raid on Highlander spurred a new verse for "We Shall Overcome." As Myles Horton recalled,

a group of young people, a youth choir from Reverend Seay's church in Montgomery, was at Highlander. He thought it would be good for them to know there were white people that they could deal with as equals. They were looking at a movie called Face of the South. It was dark. Suddenly, raiders came in with flashlights. They must have been vigilantes and some police officers, but they weren't in uniform. They demanded the lights be turned on, but they couldn't get anybody at Highlander to do it. They were furious, you know, running around with flashlights. In the meantime, the kids started to sing "We Shall Overcome." It made them feel good. The raiders yelled, "Shut up and turn on the lights!" Then some kid said, "We're not afraid." Then they started singing, "We are not afraid. We are not afraid." That's when that verse was born.

(Another account names 13-year-old Jamalia Jones as the "kid," and reports the year as 1957, and still another account credits a different student, future Freedom Singer Mary Ethel Dozier, and puts the year back at 1959. See "Song of History, Song of Freedom," Mike Hudson, The Roanoke Times, January 14, 2001; and "'People Get Ready': Music and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s," by Brian Ward, www.historynow.org, June, 2006.)

"We Shall Overcome" would not become the Civil Rights anthem, however, until it was sung by a white, South Carolina-born proto-hippie from Los Angeles, who learned the tune from Seeger via fellow Californian folkie Frank Hamilton and others. Guy Carawan came to Highlander in 1959 already loving the song, and when he performed it at Septima Clark's and Ella Baker's workshops in 1960, as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was taking shape, an official movement song was born. Taken up by black youth, the tune sped up again. "The song was different than in union days," one SNCC organizer remembered. "We put more soul in, a sort of rocking quality, to stir one's inner feeling. When you got through singing it, you could walk over a bed of hot coals, and you wouldn't notice" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen).

(Here's a musical transcription of "We Shall Overcome" based on a recording of SNCC Freedom Singers with Pete Seeger.)

Carawan took over Zilphia Horton's post as music director, left vacant since her untimely death in 1956. With his wife Candie Carawan, Guy began looking into the roots of "We Shall Overcome" and other folk songs collected by the school, later traveling around the South with a large Ampex tape recorder documenting them. The Carawans were particularly interested in Gullah-rooted Sea Island folk classics such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and eventually compiled 1967's Ain't You Got A Right To The Tree of Life, an oral history of Gullah descendents on Johns Island. "We were moved at how rich the culture was there," said Candie Carawan. "The fact that it fed some of that richness into the civil rights movement is a pretty incredible story" (see "Guy Carawan uses music for recording social change," Hugh Boulware, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1990).

"Something about that song haunts you"

(1963 songbook, We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement, Oak Publications)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(1965 sheet music)

By the summer of 1960, "We Shall Overcome" had a soul beat and vocal depth. "The song didn't begin to spread until harmony and rhythm were added," said Carawan (see "Song of History, Song of Freedom"). And as the years marched forward, "We Shall Overcome" became a sort of movement ritual, with singers standing, crossing arms, and swaying in unison. During the 1963 March on Washington, hundreds of thousands led by Joan Baez sang the anthem before the Lincoln Memorial. But the tune slowed down again with the weight of numbers, and grew desperate as racist violence worsened.

Mourners sang "We Shall Overcome" after the corpses of four little girls were pulled from the bombed-out church in Birmingham. Movement activist Viola Gregg Liuzzo reportedly sang it as she lay dying of gunshot wounds. John Lewis found comfort in the song after his skull was fractured on Bloody Sunday, 1965. "It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength," he said (see "Song of History, Song of Freedom"; and this sermon).

Demonstrators sang "We will walk together" and "Black and white together" directly at President Lyndon B. Johnson on the streets of Washington, D.C., and when he addressed the nation in 1965 with a promise of a new voting rights law, he closed with the words, "And we shall overcome." (King, whose assistants had never seen him cry, became teary-eyed watching the speech on TV.)

Yet the anthem's moment was nearly overcome. In 1966, when Martin Luther King and others continued James Meredith's "March Against Fear" in Mississippi (the day after he was shot on June 6) the walk down the highway in the sweltering heat produced loose and angry talk, which King himself recorded:

"I'm not for that nonviolence stuff anymore," shouted one of the younger activists.

"If one of those damn white Mississippi crackers touches me, I'm gonna knock the hell out him," shouted another.

Later on a discussion of the composition of the march came up.

"This should be an all-black march," said one marcher. "We don't need any more white phonies and liberals invading our movement. This is our march."

Once during the afternoon we stopped to sing, "We Shall Overcome." The voices rang out with all the traditional fervor, the glad thunders and the gentle strength that had always characterized the singing of this noble song. But when we came to the stanza which speaks of "black and white together," the voices of a few of the marchers were muted. I asked them later why they refused to sing that verse. The retort was, "This is a new day, we don't sing those words anymore. In fact the whole song should be discarded. Not 'We Shall Overcome,' but 'We Shall Overrun.'"

As I listened to all these comments, the words fell on my ears like strange music from a foreign land. My hearing was not attuned to the sound of such bitterness. I guess I should not have been surprised. I should have known that in an atmosphere where false promises are daily realities, where deferred dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence toward Negroes are a way of life, nonviolence would eventually be seriously questioned. I should have been reminded that disappointment produces despair and despair produces bitterness, and that the one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness.

(See The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, Warner Books, 1998.)

"Something about that song haunts you"

(Protester at the 1966 James Meredith March remembers Jimmy Lee Jackson, killed February 1965 in Alabama while demonstrating for voter registration, photographed by Jo Freeman.)

Seeger remembered young people on the march following up "We Shall Overcome" with a call-and-response chant of "What do we want?" "Freedom!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

"A few years later, even this was not enough to take away the milky taste of 'someday,'" Seeger wrote in his 1972 book The Incompleat Folksinger (with editor Jo Metcalf Schwartz, Simon and Schuster). "In 1972, I occasionally find myself humming it at work when I feel low and pessimistic about the human species."

Songwriter Julius Lester captured the darkened mood perfectly. "Those northern protest rallies where Freedom songs were sung... began to look more and more like moral exercises. 'See, my hands are clean.' Now it is over: the days of singing freedom songs and the days of combating bullets and billy clubs with love" (see Susanne's Folksong-Notizen).

Yet the movement was a moral exercise. And "We Shall Overcome" merely showed how shaky that excercise becomes when the people joining together behind that "we" are still divided by inequality themselves. Sticking to his guns, so to speak, Martin Luther King sang the song into Memphis in 1968, and after he failed to come out alive, mourners sang it again at his funeral. Yet the America that exploded in riots after his assassination was rejecting more than a song of nonviolence. If there was a history of black and white, urban and hillbilly, religious and secular music behind the stolid old tune, that backstory represented a left-wing politics many were ready to jettison for the "now" song. Besides addressing the emotional life of culture directly, Black Power and the armed white revolutionary left were the ultimate triumph of pop over folk. They replaced boring old activist labor with iconography and big gestures, organizers with stars.

"We Shall Overcome" was dead to this sensibility, even as the song was cheating mortality elsewhere, sung on the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison by South African freedom fighter John Harris, and among U.S. farm workers (in Spanish) during the strikes and grape boycotts of the late 1960s. It was taken up by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Lebanon, and pre-fall-of-Communism Eastern Europe. In India, the song's literal translation in Hindi became a patriotic anthem in the '80s, "Hum Honge Kaamyaab," which endures today.

If "we" was the most troubling word in "We Shall Overcome" by the late 1960s, it also became the most malleable--and hopeful. "I confess that for me the most important word in this song is 'we,'" Seeger wrote in Carry It On! (1988, Simon and Schuster). "When I sing it, I think of the whole human race, which must stick together if we are going to solve the problems of war and peace, of poverty, ignorance, [and] fear."

"Something about that song haunts you"

More "We Shall Overcome" links:

Thanks for the link, Mark Woods.

John Hammond, the link between Seeger, Springsteen, and Dylan.

More sources here.

Wonderful site about movement veterans:

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