Folk singer Guy Carawan didn’t write “We Shall Overcome,” the galvanizing anthem of the civil-rights movement that the Library of Congress called “the most powerful song of the 20th century.” In fact, its origins remain unclear.
But it was Carawan who introduced the song to civil-rights workers in the South in April 1960.
“During the next few months, it was not a song,” legendary singer Pete Seeger said in a 2010 interview. “It was the song.”
Carawan, 87, died May 2 in New Market, Tenn. He was suffering from a form of dementia, said his wife, Candie Carawan.
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Some music historians believe the song was derived from the hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” included in an early 1900s collection by Charles Tindley, an African-American pastor in Philadelphia. (In that same Tindley collection was “Stand By Me,” the basis for a 1961 hit song by Ben E. King, who died April 30).
Others say the credit should go to hymn composer Louise Shropshire, whose “If My Jesus Wills” contains the phrase, “I do believe, I’ll overcome someday.”
In any regard, the lyrics and music of what became “We Shall Overcome” evolved over decades.
“I first heard the song from a friend of mine, Frank Hamilton,” Carawan said in a 1999 National Public Radio (NPR) documentary. In the 1950s, Carawan was getting his master’s degree in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also performing folk music. Hamilton later performed with the famed folk group The Weavers.
Carawan became a volunteer at the Highlander center in rural Tennessee that was devoted to union and civil-rights activities. The center emphasized music as a unifying force, and at a three-day conference in April 1960, Carawan taught civil-rights protesters several songs, including “Eyes on the Prize” and “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table.”
But it was “We Shall Overcome” that most resonated with the crowd.
Two weeks later, he performed by invitation at Shaw University, a historically black school in Raleigh, N.C. Again, “We Shall Overcome” was the sensation.
“Everyone stood up, crossed arms and sang,” she said.
The song spread like wildfire, becoming interwoven with the movement — it was sung during nationally televised demonstrations, in cellblocks and at funerals. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked it in some of his most famous speeches.
“It is one of the most powerful, at the same time, sacred moment when we would say ‘We shall overcome,’ ” movement leader John Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, said in the NPR documentary. “Especially if you had been beaten and arrested and jailed and thrown into a paddy wagon, thrown into some waiting area and the group just stands there and sings together, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength to continue to struggle, to continue to push on.”
In 1963, the Carawans were arrested during a demonstration in Birmingham, Ala. According to Taylor Branch’s 1988 book, “Parting the Waters,” Andrew Young announced the arrests to a crowd of protesters.
“They are the ones,” Young lamented, “who taught us many of the songs that we sing in the movement.”