We Shall Overcome

Pete Seeger, adapted from Charles Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Some Day”

What kind of music does this song remind you of? What clue does that give you about the motivations of the people who sang the song? Who might have sung this song in the 1960s? Where and when do you think the song was usually sung?

How do you think this song was meant to be performed? Solo or group? With or without accompaniment? What is the tempo? What mood does the song convey? How? What is the message of this song? Which verse do you think is most important? Most moving?

Who were the promoters of this message in the 1960s? What laws and attitudes were they trying to change? What strategies did they use? How does "We Shall Overcome" fit the strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr.? How does each verse reinforce his doctrines? How did songs like this contribute to the success of the Civil Rights Movement?

Did this song represent all African Americans' points of view in the 1960s? Who believed differently? How might they feel when hearing this song? What songs better expressed their feelings?

"We Shall Overcome" performed by SNCC Freedom Singers on Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960–1966, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian/Folkways [SF40084], © 1997. Available on iTunes and YouTube.

"We Shall Overcome" performed by SNCC Freedom Singers on We Shall Overcome on Spotify. This is a studio version. Compare the two with your students to explore how these different settings change the audience's perception of the song.

The SNCC Freedom Singers, featured in the recommended recording, formed in 1962 in Albany, Georgia. Four individuals from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) founded the singing group as a vehicle for raising money and awareness about what was happening in the South.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://genius.com/Pete-seeger-we-shall-overcome-lyrics

Civil rights demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention on August 24, 1964.
Civil rights demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention on August 24, 1964.

This song was adapted from Charles Tindley’s “I'll Overcome Someday,” a gospel hymn sung in Black churches. The words were first changed from “I’ll overcome” to the collective “we will overcome” at a tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945. It was taught to Pete Seeger in this format in 1947, and he then made some slight changes. He indicated that he changed “we will” to “we shall” because he “liked a more open sound; ‘We will’ has alliteration to it, but ‘We shall’ opens the mouth wider; the ‘i’ in ‘will’ is not an easy vowel to sing well.” In this form the song became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s.

The song’s text adapts to any protest. Although the popularity of “We Shall Overcome” waned in the United States after the mid-1960s, it remained popular in South Africa, where it was sung to protest racial oppression.

The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford.

Write additional verses for "We Shall Overcome" in keeping with the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience.

Write and design signs to carry on a civil rights march. How can you distill this song's message into a short powerful sentence? Look at photos of some of the civil rights marches for examples.