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"We Shall Overcome"
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966. SF 40084. Smithsonian Folkways, 1997. CD 799

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Protest Songs:  We Shall Overcome

The Civil Rights movement, nurtured in African-American churches of the South, found its most resonant voice in the tradition of the African-American spiritual. In politicizing the spiritual, the movement gained a powerful but non-violent weapon in the struggle for civil rights. The type of congregational singing familiar to African-American churchgoers also suited the needs of the movement. Call-and-response connected the song leader and the rest of the group, while leaving room for the leader to improvise and insert new words or phrases as inspiration struck. Marches, like the 1963 march on Washington and the 1965 fifty-mile long march from Selma to Montgomery, proved an incubator for new songs, many of which were written by participants during jail terms of up to 40 days. The Freedom Riders carried the songs to all parts of the nation, and their original messages of tolerant forbearance transformed into rallying cries for action and empowerment.

By the latter years of the decade, when it became clear that nonviolent action was powerless against entrenched racism, the cry of "Black Power" began to be heard, heralding a new insistence on action. This mood was captured by classics like Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" and James Brown's "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud."

Newton, Huey P. "The Racist Dog Policemen Must Withdraw Immediately..." [Emeryville, CA: Black Panther Party, ca. 1968].

Freedom Singers. "Freedom Is a Constant Stuggle." 1964. Broadside 22 September 1964: 1. From the Marvin Tatum Collection of Contemporary Literature.

CORE. Sit-in Songs. [New York?]: Congress of Racial Equality, 1962. From the Marvin Tatum Collection of Contemporary Literature.

On February 1, 1960, four African-American students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro sat down at the lunch counter of a variety store. The waitress refused to serve them, but the students returned the next day to repeat their protest. The era of sit-ins had begun.

Heyward, Sammy. Checkin' on the Freedom Train. Lyric by Langston Hughes. New York: Handy, 1947.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett
Library of American Literature.

Between 1947 and 1949, the American Heritage Foundation sponsored a mobile museum called the "Freedom Train," which traveled 37,000 miles through all 48 states, carrying the originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other icons of American democracy. Even with the backing of the President and the Attorney General, the Foundation could not guarantee that Southern audiences coming to view the exhibition would not be segregated. Langston Hughes seized on the hypocrisy in this stance when he wrote the poem "Ballad of the Freedom Train," set to music and shown here.


Carawan, Guy, and Candie Carawan, eds. We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement. [New York]: Oak Publications [1963].

The song "We Shall Overcome" takes its text from Charles Tindley's 1900 gospel "I'll Overcome Some Day." Sung during a strike by workers of the Negro Food and Tobacco Union in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1945, the song circulated quickly to union gatherings throughout the country. In the 1960s it became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement.

Since then, the song has attained the status of an international anthem for civil rights. Appalachian miners at the Pittston Coal Company strike of 1989 used it as a rallying cry, and Chinese students at Tienanmen Square wore T-shirts emblazoned with the motto. Archbishop Desmond Tutu invoked the song during South Africa's apartheid struggles. Most recently, thousands who had gathered at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001, to pay tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, joined hands in a display of unity as the Harlem Boys' and Girls' Choir gave a stirring rendition of "We Shall Overcome."

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