We Shall Overcome

On Sunday, January 14, 2018 our commissioning hymn is the well-known “We Shall Overcome,” which is now most often associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King march on Washington. This song’s history is deeply entrenched in the very fields of injustice it spoke to. Voices from cotton fields, tobacco houses, labor unions, and then civil rights. Weaving it’s way through houses of worship as God’s guiding hand was praised and implored.

Slaves, laborers, protesters, folk singers and worshipers all came to know and love this simple tune with its profound message of hope.

Here is the famous (click here) Pete Seeger folk song version from the 60s, when “We Shall Overcome” (“I do believe we shall overcome some day”) was being sung by civil rights activists as well as anti-war protesters: “We shall overcome… we’ll walk hand in hand … we are not afraid … we shall overcome someday.” As the verses mount more join in singing until the entire room swells to the rhythm and emotion of the unifying message of hope.

But this folk song started out as the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday ,” (“If Jesus will my leader be, I’ll overcome some day”) first composed in 1905 by a great charismatic preacher Charles Albert Tindley, who was born in 1851 Maryland to a free mother and slave father. When Tindley’s mother died he was taken into her sister’s family in order to retain his freedom. Although technically free he had to work long hours and the only education he received was self-taught, and after marrying he took correspondence courses towards Methodist ministry. Tindley introduced all the hymns he composed during his sermons, which helped swell the membership roles in every church he ministered … because he passionately believed we are called individually by God to commit ourselves to improving the community. Listening carefully, our familiar version’s more melodic, swaying phrases occasionally can be heard bubbling to the surface of this very enthusiastic, jumping rhythm.

Then came “If My Jesus Wills,” composed by Louise Shropshire in 1942 and now our later tune is very apparent. (“I do believe I’ll overcome some day”). Still primarily a worship experience hymn, this version was sung by striking South Carolina tobacco workers as they linked arms, individuals united in singing the belief each had that they were following God’s will for them.

If Jesus will my leader be, I’ll overcome some day.” 1905

I do believe I’ll overcome some day” 1942

But then the lyrics changed to:

I do believe, we shall overcome some day” 1960

For years, those wanting to learn how to affect real change for their communities went to workshops at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee. Music was a big part of that learning. Then folk singers flocked to the center to learn the primarily southern tunes. By the 1950s the center’s focus was shifting to civil rights and northern, white activists were joining the workshops. Bernice Johnson of the Freedom Singers later recalled the concession of changing the “I will overcome” to “we will overcome.”

“The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ ” Johnson remembered.

“In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, and people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s.”

But the northern whites were more used to expressing hope in a collective sense, such as “We will do this thing.” It was cultural!

“And you know what I said to myself?,” Johnson continued, “’If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.”

So it became “I do believe that we will overcome some day.” One person expressing the belief that a community would and could overcome injustice.

(It was a short time later that the word “shall” replaced “will”).

In 1965 “We Shall Overcome” was a permanent musical fixture in our culture. President Johnson stated “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” Johnson declared in his speech to Congress. “Their cause must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Georgia Congressman John Lewis later said of the song, “It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear.”