We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Often protestors faced hostile crowds, were arrested, or even beaten up when they took part in nonviolent demonstrations that called for all Americans—no matter their skin color—to have the same right to vote and be treated fairly in restaurants, stores, businesses, schools, buses, trains—and even amusement parks.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a main leader of the civil rights movement, urged demonstrators not to fight back, no matter how badly they were treated. This song helped them do that. Holding hands and joining their voices in “We Shall Overcome” during demonstrations—or in jail—helped them feel they weren’t alone and that despite the danger, their efforts would lead to a better America.
The protests did indeed lead to new laws being passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Law makes it illegal for any business that serves the public to discriminate against people because of race, religion, gender, or national origin. The 1965 Voting Rights Law outlaws rules that make it hard for blacks to vote.
News about these nonviolent protestors—and their song—spread around the world. Before long, people protesting for fair treatment in other countries began singing “We Shall Overcome” in their own languages. It has been sung by demonstrators in such varied countries as India, Czechoslovakia, Romania, China, and Britain.
While I was doing research for a book on civil rights, a man told me how the song helped him when he was surrounded by a hostile mob that hurled insults (and some rocks) during a 1963 demonstration at an amusement park that refused to let in blacks. When police arrived to arrest the protestors (not the stone thrower), the demonstrators held hands and sang the song as they walked through the mob to the police van. Their voices were shaky as they sang the verse “We are not afraid,” because they were very afraid, but the song gave them the courage to keep going.
Click here for source notes on this article.
Click below to hear folk singer Joan Baez sing “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with more than 200 thousand protesters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the tale of the nearly ten years of protests that were needed to finally end segregation at an amusement park, placing the story of the park—and its merry-go-round—within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole. For more information on the book, click here.
On September 15, 1963, a single event changed the course of the civil rights movement. Would you like to know what it was? You'll find out tomorrow from Larry Brimner.