I originally posted this to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The song “We Shall Overcome” is closely associated with the American Civil Rights Movement and with Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems appropriate to re-post today, the day Americans celebrate King’s legacy.
Yesterday I wrote about the history of the iconic song, “We Shall Overcome.”
How does one little song become so pervasive in the course of human events and, more importantly, why this song? Think of all the songs and all the candidates for immortality—why does one song get forgotten and another transcend its moment?
I worked in the academic field of rhetorical criticism—that’s a fancy term for someone who analyzes messages and tries to understand why people respond to some messages more than others. It stands to reason that, if a message—a speech, a song, a book—is popular and praised then it must somehow meet the needs of many people. My question is, “How so?”
The song “We Shall Overcome” has stood the test of time and cultural meaning. It has been sung as a message of protest and hope, by dramatically different groups of people, for at least 65 years and probably much longer.
By focusing on changes the song underwent and its place in the American civil rights movement, I hope I can provide some insight about how and why the song has achieved such iconic status.
The song came to mean so much to the African-American community for several reasons: its history, the way the specific words resonated, and because the act of singing together has power of its own.
“We Shall Overcome” was an old song, with roots and meaning in the community. The civil rights movement, to be successful, had to bring together supporters from all walks of life. College students needed to able to work with and communicate with unlettered sharecroppers. Young needed to communicate with old, North with South, black with white.
One way activists could bridge these gaps was through the use of old songs that everyone knew and related to. While some of the younger activists resisted the singing of spirituals and songs from “the bad old days,” others seem to have realized it was a way to reach out, not just to older African-Americans, but to all kinds of people who would find the music engaging and appealing.
The use of these songs also built on past tradition and created a sense of community with those who had come before. African-Americans had been using song to deal with adverse conditions since the time of slavery, and the songs of the civil rights movement were a continuation of that resistance. Singing the old songs placed the singers within a tradition of singing and gave them the sense of building on, extending, the deeds of their ancestors.
The deceptively simple words of the song are the source of much of its power. The changes made in the song, as it evolved, give us some insight to what people wanted and needed from the song.
The song seems to have originally been written as “I will overcome.” This made sense if the song was to be sung as a hymn or in a religious context–“I will overcome my sins” or my baser instincts or whatever.
In the context of a social movement, however, with protestors singing the song as a group, the needs changed. One hundred people singing “I will overcome” might ultimately come down to a meaning similar to that same group singing “we will overcome,” but the point was that no one person could succeed or bring abut the change needed without the group. The group, as a group, was necessary for change to occur. The “power in many” made a difference.
The original song was also subtly different than the song the world came to know in the use of the word “will,” rather than “shall.” It seems such a little thing but think about the words—do they communicate differently?
I’d say yes, emphatically. To say “will” simply expresses an intention. “Shall” carries extra weight and force. We associate the word “shall” with the language of law, regulations and directives and to express that which is mandatory, or inevitable, “Shall” also has Biblical overtones and a sense of determination that is missing in the use of “will.” And, because we tend not to use “shall” in everyday talk, it attracts attention when it is used and gives a special sound and power to the statement.
What about the word “overcome,” though? Some would argue that that word was too strong and would sound threatening to listeners. In a context where white America was uneasy about thousands of African-Americans coming together to protest, would their use of “overcome” sounds too confrontational and off-putting?
I’d argue that the word “overcome” worked because, in fact, it is not a word likely to evoke fear. When we use the word “overcome,” we tend not to use it to talk about overcoming people. We’re more likely to say, “I need to overcome my weaknesses” or “overcome the odds against me.” The word “overcome” is ambiguous in the best possible way and suggests a rising above or transcending of difficulties rather than violence. This, combined with the fact that the song did not ever refer explicitly to enemies or the “other,” meant the song could be sung with sounding combative.
Beyond the recurring words “we shall overcome,” the verses of the song were simple and flexible, and could be added to, to fit the needs of a particular situation. One activist told of just such a moment:
One night in the winter of 1957, officers of the law burst in [to a meeting of activists]—not policemen really, just angry white men who’d been deputized by the local sheriff and given license to put a scare into the students of social change. They cut the power and forced the students to lie in the dark as they smashed furniture and ransacked the place in search of “Communist literature.” And there on the floor, the trembling students began to sing [We Shall Overcome]. Softy at first. Then louder. One of the students was a 13-year-old girl named Jamalia Jones. She knew only one way to control her fear. In the darkness, she made up a new verse: “We are not afraid, TODAY.”
And the activists said that, even though they WERE afraid, when they sang, together, that they were not, it helped them address and overcome their fears, together, and continue their activities.
In addition to the group history with the song and the power of the individual words the act of singing was critical in the success of the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” and the other freedom songs were sung in unison, not by a performer singing for others. Everyone present raised voices together, making a big, powerful sound that had to be reassuring to anyone fearful about repercussions.
This act of raising voices together built an actual, tangible community, where each voice mattered to the overall sound. Additionally, every singer, in singing, voiced a commitment. Humans truly believe that the voicing of a commitment makes the commitment stronger and “real.” If we didn’t, why would we ask couples to say, “I do” at a wedding, or ask a president to speak the Oath of Office? When activists sang, they made an oral commitment to the cause at a higher level.
When people sang together, as in the civil rights movement, differences among them could be transcended. When, together, they sang “we,” they created an “us.” Given the magnitude of change they were looking for, this sense of community was a necessity.
The singing of “We Shall Overcome” became ritualized in ways that took this sense of being part of something big even further. When this song was sung, at the beginning and ending of every meeting, it took on the power of a benediction. Activists stood next to each other with shoulders touching and held hands with right arm over left, swaying in time with the song. The ritual was theirs and, like any ritual, created a sense of belonging and group identity.
Lastly, singing in general gave the activists an outlet through which they could take a stand and make themselves heard while remaining committed to the primary strategy of the civil rights movement, that of nonviolence. When faced with violence, they sang. When faced with angry dogs and knocked about with fire hoses, they sang. In the oral histories from the civil rights movement, you can find numerous references to the times when, faced with abuse and violence, protestors found the strength to “turn the other cheek” through their songs.
I could go on and on (I already have!). “We Shall Overcome” worked in the civil rights movement, and continues to work for other protestors and activists and people in difficult times, because of its history—it is connected to past struggles and successes. The specific words matter very much—they are firm and clear, but nonconfrontational, and adaptable. The physical and communal act of melding ones voice with others connects people and offers both reassurance and power.
The many strategies used by civil rights activists provide a virtual game plan for protestors in later movements. The song has connected thousands, bringing them strength and courage; right now, someone, somewhere is singing it.
If you wonder about my credentials on this subject, let me reassure you. I spent my academic career studying the rhetoric of protest music. For much more on the topic see Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.