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The March on Washington

We Shall Overcome
Songwriter: Baptist hymn adapted by Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger
Performed by: n/a

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"'We Shall Overcome.' That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?" -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the March on Washington, legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson led participants in this song, signaling the unity among the moderate members of the SCLC and the more radical young leaders of SNCC.

One of the movement's touchstone songs, it had its own performance ritual. At the end of many demonstrations and meetings, participants would cross their arms across their chests and hold hands with their neighbors, swaying as they sang. The history of the song, however, belies the idea of a standard performance.

Originally known as "I'll Be All Right" and then "I'll Overcome Someday" the song had been sung in black churches since the turn of the 20th century. In the 1940s, union workers sang the song during strikes, changing the words to the collective "We will overcome." Pete Seeger soon changed the verb from "will" to "shall" -- supposedly to get a more singable vowel sound, but also to invoke the language of the King James Bible.

When President Lyndon Johnson later quoted the song in a televised speech about the Voting Rights Act, some saw it as proof of freedom songs' power. Others felt that the song had been co-opted and was no longer effective.\

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

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