Ongoing Thoughts about Martin Luther King, Jr., and “We Shall Overcome”
I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., a lot lately. Which makes sense, in a way. After all, this past August was a half-century since Dr. King made his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”, one of many made during a day of demonstration for “Jobs and Freedom.” Lately, the mainstream media has been focusing on another anniversary – that which marks President Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty. This only puts Dr. King in my head further, since it was poverty which was driving Dr. King in his final days. His last speech was to a union of janitorial workers. He was talking about labor issues and income inequality. Of course, in those days (as in these), income inequality and labor issues, the concerns of the working poor and the unemployed are concerns deeply intertwined with racial justice.
But this is not a site aimed at race or poverty issues. It’s a music site, so I’m here to talk about Dr. King because of his musical legacy. And there is one.
But I need to jump around in history a little bit.
Three years ago, I moved from Seattle, Wash., to Asheville, NC, to start studying the life and work of Zilphia Horton for a book I’m working on. Some of you know this because you kindly contributed to a Kickstarter campaign I ran to cover the initial phase of my research (for which I am still abundantly grateful).
Having grown up in a small, mostly self-segregated Southern town, the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been familiar to me. But, like many progressive white Southerners (and, contrary to what my friends up North think, there are a great number of progressive white Southerners), I did my best for many years to skim the surface of civil rights history. It so infuriated me that the story of people with the same skin color as my own had inflicted such oppressive insanity on people with darker skin, I prefered to not know the gritty details and just push forward treating people the way I want to be treated. I felt the present and future were more important than the past when it came to righting wrongs. I never realized the weight of willful ignorance until I started researching the story of Zilphia Horton. You open one window into history, you start to realize that what’s outside your little box is far more expansive and informative, purposeful and inspirational than what lives inside.
Horton was an Arkansas native, a classical pianist, an entertaining, warming force in any room she entered. She was a naturally gifted artist in any medium she touched (her painted self portraits, fiber arts, and casual efforts at blockprinting attest to this, as she was not schooled in either and they are pretty stunning). She was a singer and a skilled marksman, a passionate, intuitive cook. In one of her letters to her husband, she talks about frying up 31 squirrels for dinner when someone brought in a racoon. She had never eaten racoon before, but decided everything tastes good with a little butter and sage.
Zilphia Horton never met Martin Luther King. She died a few months after he entered the national stage, having made a speech in Montgomery, Ala., at the start of the planning for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But Zilphia and Martin were connected through a legacy of empathy and nonviolence; a network of thousands of Southern activists who had poured through the Highlander Folk School, where Zilphia lived and worked, since the 1930s. Most inextricably, however, they were tied together the same way all of us hold ties to Zilphia Horton: through the music.
In the autumn of 1945, a tobacco workers’ union in Charleston, SC, went on strike. Most of the workers were in their 20s, a majority of them were African-American women. Here’s where you pause to consider the life and options available to a 20-something African-American woman in Charleston, SC, in 1945, what her day to day reality was in her Jim Crow town. Pause to consider the stories on which she was raised, from her mother and grandmother, from her grandfather. Consider also the hope, optimism and hubris of youth. The crowd mentality. The ain’t gonna take no shit from no one.
These workers went on strike and stayed on strike for six months, which is where we all pause to consider the snail’s pace of six months, the passing of the winter, the humid cold to-the-bone winter rain falling into the necklines of the coats worn by striking workers, carrying signs on pavement all day long. Sometimes, they ducked into nearby stores to get some heat, to dry off, to use the bathroom.
At first, there must have been some energy in the air, some kind of determination to win the strike, to get better pay. Some kind of We’re All in This Together. But time dragged on and the days were long. Not working meant not getting paid. The winter cold came. The strike dragged on.
People started singing songs. They’d call out the hymns and everyone who felt like it would sing along. It was a way to pass the time, to distract from the cold, to remind each other why they were there, to remember the promise of the meek inheriting the Earth and other ideas of a Bigger Picture and a Higher Power. At some point, one of the women – Lucille Simmons was her name – took to singing the old hymn “I’ll Be Alright”. People who were on the picket with Lucille remember her singing it slower than anyone they’d ever heard sing it before. She wouldn’t let anyone go home until they sang it. She moved verses around, bringing a buried one forward to the front: “We’ll overcome, we’ll overcome, we’ll overcome someday.” It became a sort of anthem of the strike, a theme song. She made people sing it whether they wanted to or not. Maybe because of how it made her feel. Maybe because of what it said to anyone who was listening. Maybe because you just had to do something in a strike that was dragging on six months, to keep your head and heart in it.
A few months later, Lucille and a couple of the other women who were on that strike, were sent by their union local to the Highlander Folk School. Highlander had been holding integrated labor education workshops for about a decade, in Monteagle, Tenn., right in the middle of the Jim Crow South. They’d been holding civil rights workshops for a couple of years, having come to realize that there was going to be no justice in unions until the white and African-American workers could work through their differences. So that’s how, about a decade before Martin Luther King so much as stepped up to nationally-watched podium and made a speech, Lucille Simmons, Zilphia Horton, and a couple of others walked into the Highlander library and turned “I’ll Be Alright” into “We Will Overcome.”
The song wouldn’t find its way to Martin Luther King for about another 14 years. But, for many of those 14 years, Zilphia Horton followed Lucille Simmons’s example and sang the song at the end of every meeting she attended. She taught it to just about everyone she met, sang it at the close of each day during a Highlander workshop – workshops attended by great numbers of people working to organize the labor and civil rights movements, including, nine years later, Rosa Parks. As she did with all the songs she taught people, she didn’t just require people to sing it. She told them the story of where it came from, those Charleston women. She told people about what the words were saying, how the declaration of “We Will Overcome” is more than just the voicing of a secret hope. If you sing it in a group, it’s sort of like a promise to everyone present. It’s something you sing to each other, for each other. And of course it’s something you sing just to let anyone listening know you intend to overcome this thing, whatever you’re singing about. She kept the lyrics deliberately vague – we will overcome / the Lord will see us through / we will organize / we will overcome. What was to be overcome was not quite as important as the promise of life and persistence, and the continued march toward justice, no matter the obstacle.
Among the people to whom Zilphia taught the song were Pete Seeger (about a year after she learned it) and a folksinger from California named Guy Carawan. As it would happen, Guy was well-poised and interested in taking over Zilphia’s work after she died in 1956. When he took over as Highlander’s Culture Director in 1957, he wrote about Zilphia, about her infectious benevolence and pervasive warmth. But then he turned to what mattered more. Indeed, everything I’ve learned about Zilphia Horton these past three years indicated she never had any interest in being celebrated by name. The work was the thing, that people should sing – and dance, and write, paint, sculpt, and orchestrate theater productions – with purpose. That art is a vehicle for ideas and, as long as the world is rampant with inequity, there’s a sort of responsibility among artists who care so much, to create with a sort of just urgency. With intention. Because entertainment is nice and all, but what would be even better is a just and equal world.
It was Guy who, in 1960, suggested a gathering of SNCC activists sing the song, when they crossed their arms and joined hands and started swaying to the triplet rhythm. The singing at that meeting is what’s widely considered the beginning of the song’s life as a central force in the civil rights movement.
I know I may be projecting some things onto Zilphia, or perhaps these are just things I’ve just come to realize for myself in the course of my research. But, what we learn from history is as important as what actually happened, if not, maybe, more so. Besides, it’s hard to ignore the legacy that comes sailing through the music. Not only through the song we now know as “We Shall Overcome”, the anthem of the civil rights movement, but also through “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “This Little Light of Mine” and the hundreds of other songs she taught, adapted, encouraged, and implanted in the culture of social justice work. After all, Highlander, to this day, about 80 years after Zilphia Horton first arrived there, continues to steer its social justice education with a major emphasis on culture and the arts.
Hers is a legacy which led, in 1965, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, after the President of the United States quoted the song Zilphia took under her wing, that Martin Luther King dipped his toe in the musical legacy of the movement and said:
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.
You know, I’ve joined hands so often with students and others behind jail bars singing it, We shall overcome.
Sometimes we’ve had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it, We shall overcome. Oh, before this victory’s won, some will have to get
thrown in jail some more, but we shall overcome.
Don’t worry about us. Before the victory’s won, some of us will lose jobs, but we shall overcome.
Before the victory’s won, even some will have to face physical death. But if physical
death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent
psychological death, then nothing shall be more redemptive.
Before the victory’s won, some will be misunderstood and called bad names, dismissed as rabble rousers and agitators, but we shall overcome.
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.”
Dr. King got inside the song and pulled out the part that had spoken so heavily to Zilphia Horton 20 years earlier, when she recognized it as not just another hymn people sang on a picket. Indeed, from Zilphia’s 1939 songbook for the CIO to Joe Hill’s Little Red Songbook, and beyond, to the dozens and hundreds of songs that were made up on the spot, in the heat of the moment, there were countless songs of the labor movement. (It was the same way with the apex of the civil rights movement.) But there was something about this song, the “we” the song sings about is bigger than just those singing.
The focus on this “we” is part of what made Dr. King so effective. He reminded people that they weren’t the only one afraid or angry or wishing something would change. He shed light on the injustice that was not specific to one individual or one community, but to the entirety of the African-American South. He brought the songs out of people. The things they couldn’t imagine saying to the faces of those perpetuating oppressive systems, they were able to sing together, by knowing that there were others in the room – or on the road, on the bus, in the jail cell – who were thinking the same thing.
Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on…
Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me around…
Like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved…
We are not afraid today… deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.