Some thoughts on “We Shall Overcome”, on Martin Luther King’s birthday
Many of you know by now I’ve spent the last year or so studying the life of Zilphia Horton and the evolution of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for a book-length biography. I’ve got a ways to go yet, but the amount of information I’ve digested in that year is . . . let’s say, huge. Considering Martin Luther King’s ties to the school and the Horton clan (he was a friend of Zilphia’s husband Myles, with whom he was known to debate leadership tactics, among other things), I figured today would be a good time to talk a bit about one of the most popular songs Zilphia introduced to us: “We Shall Overcome”.
But first, a little about Martin and Highlander.
If you were around and cognizant in the 1950s, you may know this image from billboards around the south. It was used as propaganda to discredit Dr. King’s message and the man himself, by linking him with the Communist Party. Here, he’s seated in the meeting hall at Highlander Folk School, watching a performance by Pete Seeger as a celebration of Highlander’s 25th Anniversary. (This year, incidentally is the school’s landmark 80th Anniversary and I’m working on a much longer piece to mark the occasion. More on that some other time.)
It’s important to note that, while the FBI spent many years investigating Highlander staff and friends for communist ties (more than a thousand pages of files), the case was eventually closed non-ceremoniously when it became abundantly clear there wasn’t a single communist in the bunch. Myles and Zilphia both were non-joiners, in general. They didn’t belong to any political party. Though they had both come to the Highlander idea in a sort of roundabout way through the church, neither of them attended church because they couldn’t reckon with the segregation in churches around the South. Their decision to steer clear of political party affiliations was driven mostly by the corruption in each. They believed in the power of people, not parties. Communities, not communists.
But, make no mistake, communism was one way (of many) in which early civil rights activists encouraged their neighbors toward justice. By “early” I mean 1920s, 30s, 40s. By the 1950s the American CP was discredited by many civil rights advocates, and Highlander’s offerings (a holistic education in union organizing, bookkeeping, Robert’s Rules of Order, filing grievances, singing, improvisational theater, children’s camps) was hardly dictated by communists.
Highlander was – and is – a center for discourse about civil rights and the labor movement, among other things and not necessarily in that order.
Ziphia passed away a year before that photo was taken but, by the time of her death in 1956, she had already been teaching “We Will Overcome” at every single meeting and workshop she attended for a decade. She’d taught it to Seeger in ’47. King had heard the song at a meeting elsewhere in the south and, unaware at the time that it had any relationship with the Hortons and Highlander, found its message to be one of the most imporant sentiments to communicate to activists. In fact, he found the song so stirring, poignant, and true, he centered an entire speech around it.
We shall overcome because the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever”…
The verses Zilphia created stated: “We will overcome / we will organize / The Lord will see us through / We will overcome.” It was a very simple, direct statement. A universal one. The song could be used for anything, and that was the point. Zilphia believed in music’s ability to forego circuitry and cut straight to the truth of a situation. At the heart of all struggles is a determination for fairness. There’s always a certain fear when you’re alone, when you see yourself as an individual staring down the extraordinary breadth of injustice. But, music destroys that facade so entirely, so completely, when people sing together. That, it seems to me at this point anyway, was her entire motivation. She would frequently tell students, “I don’t care if people do have one religion, one nationality. One thing is important before they can sing together, and that is that they’ve got to believe in something.”
So it’s not surprising that “We Will Overcome” is, among her friends and family, generally considered the embodiment of her legacy. You can’t get through a single verse of “We Will Overcome” without getting it. Just try singing with others:
We will overcome
We will overcome
We will overcome some day
Down in my heart
I do believe
We will overcome some day
The impulse when you’re singing in a group – especially if you’re not a professional singer – is to look around at other people singing. You see their faces making those same words with you. You know you’re all scared. You’ve all had enough. You all – every single one of you – don’t know if you can surmount this alone. But as you sing, something happens within you. Things change.
Think about it, imagine Zilphia Horton teaching that song over and over for ten years. Among the nameless, countless thousands of students and activists who sang that song with her were Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan (the three men with whom she shares the copyright). Those three men were so infected by the song – and by her presentation of it (you see, Zilphia never just taught lyrics and music; it was vital to her that if you were going to sing a song, you should know what it’s about, what the words mean, where it came from, who has sung it before) – they took it around the world. They carried on that song so ardently that it found its way to Martin Luther King, Jr. It found its way to Lyndon B. Johnson, who told a joint session of Congress that the government couldn’t stand by and let its citizens be kept from their right to free speech and peaceful demonstrations. It got to Chinese students who made shirts that said “We Shall Overcome” as they stared down tanks in Tienamen Square.
When Carawan brought the song to a civil rights meeting in South Carolina, people unprovoked, undirected, felt inclined to join hands . . . and not just to join hands, but to cross their arms and join hands – a gesture which physically connected them even closer. A chain which was unbreakable. It’s that style of human hand-to-hand chain-forming which arose from that point forward in the civil rights movement. That kind of chain has formed in New York City as recently as the past couple of months when, facing arrest, Occupy protesters have found themselves singing this and other songs. (The other songs they’ve sung in the face of arrest, incidentally – “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and others – can be traced directly to Zilphia and Highlander, as well.)
So, it’s kind of touching to consider Google’s graphic for MLK’s birthday. It’s an artist’s interpretation of King and those he inspired. Around it are various phrases, mostly quotes from his speeches. And then there’s “We shall overcome” – a phrase he repeated for the last several years of his life, which was repeated by the president and laymen alike. It was sung on the road to Selma. It was sung quietly (and loudly) from jail cell to jail cell across the south. Sung on the back of pickup trucks, in union halls, in churches. It was sung on the Mall in Washington DC with hundreds of thousands of hands in a chain; it was sung in the dark at Highlander when they were raided one night, when they added the verse “We are not afraid”.
That verse – “We are not afraid” – spoke to the fact that friends, neighbors, colleagues were being bombed, tear gassed, beat, bludgeoned, decapitated and thrown in the river, disappeared, arrested, shot . . . people added that verse because they knew the only way to overcome the fear was to refuse to give it power. That was something they couldn’t do alone, and it was something just talking about it wouldn’t accomplish. So they sang.