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introduction of an anthem: we shall overcome

February 27, 2011

Civil Rights marchersWe Shall Overcome” is perhaps the most well-known protest song, synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. It is an anthem for the oppressed, and its clear, timeless message can be applied to myriad struggles the world over. I’m currently reading The Children, David Halberstam’s tome on the student leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In it, he describes how “We Shall Overcome,” an old church song, made its debut with the Movement. Until reading this book I was unaware of how it was adopted but I found it fascinating and especially relevant right now, with protest sweeping the Middle East.

This passage appears in the book as the student leaders of the 1960 sit-in movement in Nashville, Tennessee are leading thousands of their community members in a peaceful march to confront Nashville’s mayor on the issue of integrated lunch counters:

“As the crowd waited there for the mayor, one young white man who had become increasingly influential in determining the music that they sang pulled the guitar off his back and began playing a song. The name of the young man was Guy Carawan, and he was an old fashioned white radical troubadour, a lineal descendent of the famed Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He came equipped with his guitar, a pleasant twangy back-country singing voice, and a knowledge of protest-folk songs of the ages… The strain he chose, once called ‘I’ll Overcome Someday,’ was an old black church song. ‘I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright some day,” it had gone. ‘Deep in my heart, I do believe, I will be all right some day. . .I will see His face, I’ll see His face some day. . .’  Some fifteen years earlier, during a strike of black women in the Food and Tobacco Union in Charleston, South Carolina the song had become politicized, without any subtraction of its essential religiosity and faith.

From the start, their [the student protesters] singing had been a critical part of their demonstrations. When they had been arrested, they had instantly become a jail choir, and that had not only given them strength, it had helped bond them together…

On this particular day as they looked to their leaders surrounding the mayor, thier music was to become even more important, ‘We shall overcome,” Guy Carawan began to sing as he picked his guitar. “We shall overcome some day.’… From the first instant they heard it, the young seminarians knew that it was perfect for the Movementl its words, its chords, above all its faith seemed to reflect their determination and resonate to their purpose perfectly…

The others who had heard it before but had not sung it during a demonstration took it up. Suddenly the sound seemed to sweep across the courthouse square. Verse followed verse, the sound becoming ever more powerful. ‘We are not alone,’ Carawan sang, ‘we are not alone today. . . ‘ It was a modern spiritual which seemed to have roots in the ages, the perfect song for this particular moment. It was easy to sing; it expressed not just a sense of long-suffering greivances could and would be corrected. It was religious and gentle, just right for a Gandhian protest, but its force and power were not to be underestimate; it not only emboldened those who were setting out on this dangerous path, but it helped affect and bring in those on the sidelines, those watching television at home who had seen young blacks, immculately behaved and dressed, beaten up by white thugs or cops, thereupon sing this haunting song. It was an important moment: The students now had their anthem.”

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