There is life and force in the music of the African American struggle for freedom. As people confronted racism in their communities, they sang. Some of the songs were new; many were older well-known songs transformed to reflect the commitment to stand against segregation and injustice. The evolution of “We Shall Overcome” is a powerful example of such cultural transformation.
At the turn of the century, “I Will Overcome” was sung in many African American Baptist and Methodist congregations. Its history as a freedom song began during a 1940s labor struggle by tobacco workers from Charleston, SC. At a Highlander Folk School workshop, members of the white local of the Charleston Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union shared the song as one they had learned from members of their sister Black union local. Founded in 1932, Highlander was one of the few places in the South where Black and white workers struggling to organize unions could meet together. For safe traveling, white and Black members from the same town never attended the same workshop.
Zilphia Horton, the school’s music director, learned the song from the tobacco workers and included it in all of her workshops. She taught it to Pete Seeger, who changed “will” to “shall” and, adding new verses, spread “We Shall Overcome” beyond the South.
During the late 1950s, Zilphia Horton’s successor, Guy Carawan continued to use the song in Highlander workshops. During a 1960 spring weekend workshop he taught the song to Nashville student sit-in leaders. A few weeks later, “We Shall Overcome” was sung at the historic meeting of student sit-in leaders at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC. Organized by Ella Baker, then executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), this gathering led to the founding of the Student Nonvoilent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As Guy Carawan began to lead the song, all present in the room began to rise from their seats singing and reaching out to join hands, and the signature song of the Civil Rights Movement was born.