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‘We Shall Overcome’: The Theme Song of Civil Rights

Follow the classic protest song’s history from the Fifties to today

Pete Seeger

AP Photo/Tennessee State Archives

Zilphia Horton was a musician and Civil Rights activist who is credited as being instrumental in transforming the hymn “We Shall Overcome” into one of the most well-known songs of the Civil Rights movement. Zilphia grew up in Arkansas, studied classical music, and taught songs to inspire cultural change at the Highlander Folk School. This 1959 photo provided by the Tennessee State Archives shows Pete Seeger performing at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Monteagle, Tennessee. The little school tucked away in the east Tennessee mountains may have faded from the public spotlight, but it was once at the center of the struggle for civil rights.

Joan Baez

Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Joan Baez, 1963

Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome" for the crowd gathered on the Mall during the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., on August 29th, 1963.

We Shall Overcome

AP Photo

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on March 15th, 1965. He was outlining his proposals for voting rights for all citizens. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is at left and House Speaker John McCormack is at right.  Johnson adopted the phrase, "We Shall Overcome" during this historical speech.

We Shall Overcome

AP Photo/Dennis Lee Royle

Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy arrived in South Africa in 1966, he stood on a car and led crowds in singing "We Shall Overcome."  Here, Kennedy is surrounded by South African students and newsmen as he tours Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, South Africa on June 7th, 1966. 

We Shall Overcome

AP Photo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1968

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses his planned people's demonstration from the pulpit of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., March 31st, 1968. During his speech, Dr. King delivered the words, "We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing 'We Shall Overcome.'"

We Shall Overcome

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Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, 1968

Labour MP Eric Heffer leads a civil rights march in London, held by the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement. The movement adopted the song as the title for the autobiography, "We Shall Overcome . . . The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968-1978." The book was published by the Northern Civil Rights Association in 1978. 

Bruce Springsteen

Paul Bergen/Redferns

We Shall Overcome Tour, 2006

Bruce Springsteen, with Greg Liszt and Jeremy Chatzky, performing on the "We Shall Overcome" tour with the Seeger Sessions band in the Netherlands on May 6th, 2006.

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20th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution

Joan Baez performs "We Shall Overcome" while former Czech President Vaclav Havel looks on at a concert in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic. The concert succeeded a march following the route taken in 1989 by student demonstrators who were then met by riot police in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. The performance took place on November 17th, 2009.   

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Roger Waters, ‘We Shall Overcome’

Roger Waters released a cover of "We Shall Overcome" to protest Israel’s blockade of Gaza on June 7th, 2010.