I was driving home from Oklahoma last night and listening to my Peter, Paul and Mary playlist, and in one of their medleys they sang We Shall Overcome. Of course, they have a history with that song as do many of us who lived during the turbulent 60s. Even today, listening to it stirs deep, sometimes unnamed emotions in me like very few songs.
The origin of the song is disputed. For many years the root of the song was attributed to Charles Albert Tindley’s gospel song I’ll Overcome Someday , first published in 1901. Tindley was a well-known pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and wrote over forty other published gospel songs. He is best remembered for his very quotable lyrics such as these from I’ll Overcome Someday:
The world is one great battlefield
With forces all arrayed.
If in my heart I do not yield,
I’ll overcome some day
If you accept this starting point, then there is evidence that the song—or a version of it became popular quite early among labor union workers, but disappeared from the gospel world.
Other strong evidence points to Louise Shropshire’s gospel hymn If My Jesus Wills as the original version. She was an African American Baptist choir director who apparently knew personally some key African American artists in the civil rights movement.
The simplicity of both the lyrics and the melody—as well as the emotional context that continues to make it a song of protest and of hope—certainly come down to us today from the protest singers of the late 50s and early 60s.
What you may not know is the President Lyndon B. Johnson is also credited with extending the impact of this gospel hymn when he used the phrase “we shall overcome” in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, after the nation had seen the pictures of attacks of civil rights demonstrators during the Selma to Montgomery marches.
But if you associate the song with any one historical figure from that time, you probably have never forgotten how Martin Luther King used the hymn to encourage and rally those who would stand up with him.
On Sunday, March 31, 1968, just hours before his assassination, King quoted the lyrics of We Shall Overcome in his final sermon in Memphis. His words from his famous sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California, will give you the sense of how he used these words:
We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right; “no lie can live forever”. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; “truth crushed to earth will rise again”. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:.
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the then unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy
As our nation finishes a month set aside to remember Black History and a day to remember Dr. King, it seemed fitting to me on this Sunday morning to remember a hymn that belongs to all who believe that this world is a broken place where people whom God loves still oppress and abuse other children of God. The Apostle Paul put it this way in Romans 8:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship . . . .
And notice that the apostle used the communal we in his writing, just as apparently the original words to this hymn were changed from I will overcome to We shall overcome. It’s not so much about the individual as about the congregation!
So, finally, again the words of Paul from which this hymn sprang:
Galatians 6:9 – And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.