This song is based on the early hymn "U Sanctissima." Charles Albert Tindley, who was a minister at Bainbridge St. Methodist Church in Philadelphia and also a gospel music composer, added the words in 1901 and called this new hymn "I'll Overcome Some Day." In the ensuing decades, the song became a favorite at black churches throughout the American south, often sung as "I Will Overcome."
The song evolved at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, which was a meeting place and activity center for civil rights activists founded in 1932 (it was later renamed the Highlander Center and relocated to New Market, Tennessee). In 1947, striking tobacco workers from Charleston, South Carolina attended a workshop there and introduced the song (as "I Will Overcome") to the cultural director of the school, Zilphia Horton. She began performing the song at her workshops, and taught it to Pete Seeger when he visited the center.
Seeger published the song in 1948 in the newsletter for his People's Songs collective and began performing it. He changed the title to "We Shall Overcome" and also added two new verses and a banjo part.
In 1959, Guy Carawan took over as cultural director at the Highlander school, where the song was now a staple. Carawan brought it to the burgeoning civil rights movement when he played it at the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960. Members of this group spread word of the song, and soon it was sung across America at vigils, rallies, protests and other gatherings that called for an inspirational song of freedom.
While the song is most closely associated with Pete Seeger, he downplayed his contribution, saying that the song already existed and that all he really did was change "will" to "shall" because it "opens up the mouth better."
When Pete Seeger played his updated version of "We Shall Overcome" to the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he gave King's civil rights movement its anthem. Seeger performed the song for King on September 2, 1957 when they attended the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, where King gave the keynote address at the seminar titled "The South Thinking Ahead."
In his speech, King talked about bringing together communities to work past differences in religion, race and economic class. Among those in the audience was Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of a bus in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. (King mentioned her in his speech: "You would not have had a Montgomery story without Rosa Parks.")
King was pragmatic but optimistic in his address. "The future is filled with vast and marvelous possibilities," he said. "This is a great time to be alive."
The seminar caught the attention of politicians who opposed integration efforts, and propaganda spread, labeling the school as "communist" - something Seeger had been called for years.
The only artist to chart with this song was Joan Baez, whose version reached #90 in the US in November 1963. She performed the song at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The album containing the audio from the event was released as We Shall Overcome: Documentary of the March on Washington.
After her first trip to England in 1965 (where she performed with Bob Dylan), Baez' version of this classic protest anthem went to #26 on the UK chart.
The song wasn't copyrighted until October 7, 1963. Listed as "New material arranged for voice and piano with guitar chords and some new words," the copyright was granted to Seeger, Guy Carawan, Zilphia Horton and Frank Hamilton. Horton had died in 1956, so her husband Myles represented her estate in the claim. Myles Horton was co-founder of the Highlander Folk School; Frank Hamilton was a folk singer who worked with Seeger and often performed the song.
All four of the copyright holders (the composer credit is listed as Guy Carawan/Frank Hamilton/Zilphia Horton/Pete Seeger) advanced the song in some fashion, but none profited from the songwriting royalties, which are donated to the We Shall Overcome Fund. Administered by the Highlander Research and Education Center, the fund supports cultural and educational endeavors in African American communities in the South.
By the time the song was copyrighted, the original words written by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901 had been transformed to the extent that he was not due a writer's credit (giving him one would have made delivering the song's proceeds to charity very difficult). Tindley does have another musical claim to fame: he also wrote a hymn called "Stand By Me," which became the basis for the Ben E. King hit of the same name
. He was left off the credits for that one, too.
Notable artists who recorded this song include Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul & Mary and Toots & the Maytals. Martin Luther King, Jr. also recorded a spoken word version.
The song was not widely recorded until the 1960s. One of the first recordings appeared in 1960 on the album The Nashville Sit-in Story: Songs and Scenes of Nashville Lunch Counter Desegregation, which was a compilation of songs recorded by demonstrators who participated in a sit-in on February 13 of that year.
Guy Carawan's version of the song appeared in 1961 on the set Folk Music of the Newport Folk Festival, Vol. 2. "Here, he sings what has become the theme song of the Negro movement in the south," it states in the liner notes.
Most of Pete Seeger's recordings of the song were taken from live performances, including his June 8, 1963 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which was released as a live album by Columbia Records called We Shall Overcome.
In 2006, Bruce Springsteen included this song on his album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which contained his versions of various songs written by Pete Seeger, who like Springsteen, championed the working class and fought against institutional oppression. Seeger told The Guardian: "I've managed to survive all these years by keeping a low profile. Now my cover's blown. If I had known, I'd have asked him to mention my name somewhere inside."
The album won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Springsteen recorded it without the E Street Band - it was the first album of cover songs he ever recorded.
The copyright of this song was challenged in a 2016 lawsuit by the nonprofit We Shall Overcome Foundation, whose leader Isaias Gamboa wrote a book about the history of the song. Gamboa said that when he tried to get permission to use the song in a documentary, he was denied by Ludlow Music, the publisher that owns the rights on behalf of the four credited songwriters (including Pete Seeger). Questioning why the song isn't public domain, Gamboa hired the same law firm that had recently emancipated "Happy Birthday
," and brought the case against Ludlow.
When Seeger and his cohorts copyrighted the song, they did it with good intentions, channeling the profits to the Highlander School. Seeger believed that songs rooted in tradition should be free to the public, but he knew that if he didn't stake a claim to "We Shall Overcome," someone else would - likely with a profit motive. ("They're not my songs, they're old songs, I just happened to sing 'em," he said when Bruce Springsteen released his tribute album.) The copyright does restrict the song though, and preventing it from being used in a documentary was certainly not Seeger's intention.