In honor of Martin Luther King Jr, I’d like to take some time examining the protest song We Shall Overcome. In his last sermon before his murder, he quoted the hymn, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Days later it was sung by thousands at his funeral.
Searching for the hymns origins, we travel back to 1792 where the Catholic Hymn O Sanctissima was published in London. By the early 1800s it was widely circulated in America. The melody has a striking resemblance to the protest song, but more evolution was to come before we arrived at the current version of ‘Overcome’.
We find the next step in this melodies progression with the spiritual No More Auction Block For Me. This dates back to the civil war as a marching song sung by black union soldiers. There is no known author, but it is an immensely powerful song that is still sung today because of its historical significance.
The final stepping stone for ‘Overcome’ was a hymn by Charles Tindley. I’ll Overcome Someday was written in Philadelphia in 1901. While again we don’t know exactly who was first to combine the text from this hymn by Tindley with the tune from the civil war, it is believed that this was the recipe that created the landmark hymn We Shall Overcome.
In 1945, the modern version of We Shall Overcome was heard and two years later it was published in a songbook under Pete Seeger’s guidance. Seeger credits union organizer Zilphia Horton, who in turn said she heard it from a fellow striker named Lucille Simmons. It was sung at the end of each day of strike during a 5 month strike against the American Tobacco Company.
It is not clear to me who wrote the final iteration of this hymn. Indeed, it seems clear most of this hymns’ journey is not documented well. In my mind, this makes this song that much more a hymn of the people, a universal protest song. I’ll finish with words by Noah Adams:
“It is not a marching song. It is not necessarily defiant. It is a promise: ‘We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe.’”