Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
GET UP, STAND UP: The Story of Pop and Protest Revolutionary Music
About the Program
Revolutionary Music
Flash Points
The Preacher and the Slave
We Shall Overcome
Give Peace a Chance
Get Up, Stand Up
Fight the Power
Did You Know?
It was first used as a song of protest by picketing tobacco workers in 1945.
We Shall Overcome

Joan Baez
That's how the Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle, Tennessee, a place where adults could learn from one another across class and racial lines, came into being. Among those who attended the school's integrated workshops were Pete Seeger and Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus is often seen as the spark that kindled the civil rights movement outside the courtroom battles that were going on at the time. Seeger was taught the song by Zilphia Horton, the wife of Highlander's cofounder, who had learned it in the late 1940s from a group of women strikers who visited the school. He began performing it, with banjo accompaniment, as "We Will Overcome." The song was also popularized and spread by other singers associated with Highlander, among them Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan, who is credited with introducing it to black students preparing for nonviolent demonstrations. Although accounts vary as to who secularized the hymn -- "I" was replaced with "we," and it was no longer a question of oneself not yielding, but a question of belief -- the new lyrics were ideal for any struggle.

Harry Belafonte
Since so many African Americans, in the North and the South, knew the song and it was so easy to sing, it became the anthem of the civil rights struggle. The ideals of passive resistance, of having the courage to stand up to unjust authority, and of joining in solidarity with thousands of others who felt as you did, all seemed to be reflected in this simple but powerful song.

The civil rights movement set an example for the rest of the world, and because this hymn was sung so often and picked up by television reporters and political activists, it moved into other fields of struggle. It left the United States and was translated into other languages; it was sung by striking coal miners in Britain, in South Africa by opponents of apartheid, and, perhaps most movingly, by the resistance movements in Eastern Europe as the old communist regimes fell apart and democracy began to take hold. Like any great work of art, it burst its boundaries, transcending its original message of personal liberation to become a song of universal liberation.

Back to Page 1

to top
Tools: Feedback Print Page E-Mail Page
Produced by: Thirteen/WNET

Go to Print Resources