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A world-famous, Charleston-powered protest song sounds again

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Over the July 4 weekend, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has long been a regular and rousing companion to fireworks displays and other such patriotic nods.

However, another American anthem has gained ground across the country this summer. It is one that galvanized the civil rights era, was served up by folk singers, was championed by activists and was embraced by national leaders, all with the aim of righting racial injustice.

That anthem is “We Shall Overcome,” de facto though it may be. Its launch as a protest song took place right in Charleston. The song didn’t start there, and it didn't end there either. However, as a beloved ballad of change, its current popularity and local ties warrant a refresher, if only to reflect on how the cultural expressions of this city reverberate far and long. (Note: Music lovers who are print subscribers can enjoy the embedded links via postandcourier.com/account/.)

Song for the moment

At Black Lives Matter protests around the country, "We Shall Overcome" is holding its own (though with less play in our own state, give or take a Columbia protest). 

In Pennsylvania, a soloist serenaded protesters to rousing applause in York, and at State College, The Justice for Black Lives culminated its event with a verse. In Washington, D.C., African American faith leaders sang it at St. John’s Episcopal Church. In Buffalo, N.Y., a local duo of police officers known as the Buffalo Singing Cops led a crowd of demonstrators. It also was sung in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, in both English and Arabic, at a joint Jewish-Arab protest against the annexation of the West Bank coined “Palestinian Lives Matter.” 

Artists have embraced it, too. Jazz pianist Jon Batiste, bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” has taken the tune to New York City streets as part of his “We Are” protests and recording, performing a New Orleans-inflected rendition at "A Musical March for Justice” down Manhattan's Sixth Avenue and at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The New York Philharmonic's Very Young Composers program premiered it as a Zoom concert.

Obama Civil Rights (copy)

Mavis Staples sings "We Shall Overcome" before President Barack Obama arrives to speak in 2014 at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, during the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. File/Carolyn Kaster/AP

These artists are in stellar company, from early adapters like folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez to countless others such as Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Mavis Staples, Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen. Bernie Sanders recorded a version in the 1980s, delivering a mayoral speech accompanied by a chorus.

A spiritual start

However, the civil rights movement was by no means the starting point of the song. The Philadelphia-based Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley, who is widely regarded as the originator of Black gospel music, composed hymns that were often inspired by African American spirituals. In 1901, he published the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday.” In "The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists," author William Ferris writes, "It was a well-known song in this fast version throughout North Carolina and South Carolina."

It also has long been a spiritual sung at religious services in the Sea Islands. In the book of Johns Island oral histories called “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina — Their Faces, Their Words, and Their Songs,” Guy and Candie Carawan share an account by Alice Wine, who said, "The older people sang 'I Will Overcome' because they had a hard time. They had to row boat to go to the city and carry their peas and corn and potatoes, rice and things."

After learning the song in 1959 during the civil rights era in New York City, J. Herman Blake, PhD, a Gullah scholar, first experienced it as a spiritual in 1967 when he became involved with his Johns Island family and with the island's Citizenship School, working with founders Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark. 

Student orchestra plays ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Cigar Factory (copy)

O’Connor Method Camp, a group with about 50 kids, played “We Shall Overcome” at the Cigar Factory, led by Pam Wiley (center) and Mark O’Connor. The site plays a part in the civil rights movement relating to a cigar workers’ strike. Provided

"I began to learn that the song had roots in the Sea Islands," he said. While visiting, Blake went to church with his brother, the Rev. William Blake, pastor of a church on Edisto Island. When it came time for the offering, his brother said, 'Let us join together' and started singing "I'll Overcome."

"It had a different tune and the words were all religious ... and the congregation became very involved," said Blake. "It went on and on and on, led by my brother then by a deacon and then by one of the deaconesses. And I listened to that tape repeatedly realizing I was close to the roots." 

At the Cigar Factory strike

However, it most prominently transitioned from hymn to protest song in 1945, by way of Black, mostly female workers at the Cigar Factory on Meeting Street, who were members of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural Workers of America striking against the American Tobacco Co. in response to low wages and working conditions. These included Lucille Simmons, who led the workers in a slowed-down take on the song.

In “Democracy Rising: South Carolina and the Fight for Black Equality since 1865," author Peter F. Lau writes, “Picket lines began in the early mornings and every evening the lines broke up with the singing 'We Shall Overcome.' ... During most days, Lucille Simmons canvassed black neighborhoods in Charleston to rally support for the strikers, only to return to the picket lines in the evening to lead the singing of the song ...”

Charleston activist and storyteller Minerva King attributes the song's presence on the picket line directly to Alice Wine. According to King, who is working with Thesis Content on a video on the song, the Johns Island native learned the song from Black churches, then shared it with the disheartened strikers who had remained on the picket lines after many others had returned to work.

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"One day she came along and noticed that the spirit of the people was sagging, and so she started singing the song she learned a long time ago," King said. "And they were able to carry on that day and a little longer." 

So which came first, the Tindley version or the Sea Island spiritual? Wherever the song originated, its roots in Charleston run deep. In "Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora," author Shana L. Redmond writes, "It is clear that both 'We Shall Overcome' and 'I'll Be Alright' owe their most tremendous debt to a collective process stemming from the oral traditions of the Black community."

From Charleston to the world 

The protest version then left Charleston, traveling with tobacco workers to the Highlander Folk School, the social justice leadership training center in Tennessee. According to King, it was Wine who took the song to Highlander and taught it to staff member Zilphia Horton, who then shared it with Seeger.

Civil rights pioneer Clark (copy)

Septima P. Clark speaks at Old Bethel United Methodist Church in 1984. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to Clark as the "Mother of the Movement." File

Guy Carawan stated in his book that he learned it from Seeger. In an interview with Pacifica, Seeger said, "The striking workers, mainly black women, began to adapt their song to fit their situation. They changed "I" to "we" and sang "We will win our rights" and "We will organize" and "The Lord will see us through.'"

In an NPR interview, Seeger set the record straight on another change. "I’m usually credited with changing (‘Will) to ‘Shall,’ but there was a black woman who taught at Highlander Center, a wonderful person named Septima Clark. And she always liked 'shall,' too, I’m told.”

The momentum continued. Baez sang it through the civil rights era, at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1969 Woodstock festival. It was embraced by activists John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., who included it in his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” saying “we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, 'We Shall Overcome.’" President Lyndon B. Johnson used it, too.

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Photographer Cecil Williams took this photograph in Columbia during the song "We Shall Overcome." Provided

Its power and peace

And it radiated throughout the movement. In his civil rights days in New York City, Blake said, "It was always sung at the end or the beginning of community meetings. We would gather in circles, cross our arms and hold hands and sing it."

Cecil Williams, a photographer during the civil rights era and founder of the Cecil Williams Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg, recounted its power when played at marches, demonstrations and meetings as well as at the moment that protesters knew they were going to be arrested.

"It can be so inspirational and so peaceful that it had a great effect," he said, adding that it would fill people's hearts and put everything in perspective. To this day, his most sought-after photograph is one during which a young boy in Columbia is listening to the song. "It was almost a divine moment." 

Sounding still

It has since traveled the world over. "The song has been translated into so many different languages and it really became the international anthem of civil rights and human rights," Minerva King said.

Still, Blake offered a word of caution on the interpretation of cultural touchstones, even those a community does not seek to claim.

"I think one of the things that has upset a lot of people is to see their origins and their religion claimed by others," he said.

This summer, the song plays on. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who has long performed the song, just has released an animated music video of the song.

“I’ve been playing the song for years, and I’m going to keep playing it ’til there is no need anymore,” he said in a statement. “I can’t help but hope that day will come.”

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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