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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today as we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we wrap up our series on the music of that historic summer back in 1963. And we're going to end with the song that still defines the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: There's a little song that we sing in our movement down in the South. I don't know if you've heard it. It has become the theme song: We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.

BLOCK: In 1999, our colleague, former host Noah Adams, explored the history and legacy of the song on this program, and today, we bring you an excerpt of that story.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: It is not a marching song. It is not necessarily defiant. It is a promise: We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

ADAMS: "We Shall Overcome" has also been heard in North Korea, in Beirut, in Tiananmen Square, in South Africa's Soweto Township.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We shall overcome.

ADAMS: It began as a folk song, a work song. Slaves in the fields would sing: I'll be all right someday. It became known in the churches. A Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a version in 1901: "I'll Overcome Someday." The first political use came in 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina. There was a strike against the American Tobacco Company. The workers wanted a raise. They were making 45 cents an hour. They marched and sang together on the picket line: We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.

In 1947, two of the union members from South Carolina traveled to Tennessee at the town of Monteagle. They came for a workshop at the Highlander Folk Center. Blacks and whites had been meeting together about labor issues at Highlander for many years. The tobacco workers brought their song to Tennessee, and Zilphia Horton, Highlander's music director, started using it in workshops in Tennessee and beyond. On this tape from the late 1940s, she's with a group of farm workers in Montana.

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ZILPHIA HORTON: This is the song of "We Will Overcome." It's a spiritual. I sang it with many different nationality groups. And it's so simple, and the idea is so sincere, that it doesn't matter that it comes from the tobacco workers. When I sing it to people, it becomes their song.

(Singing) We will overcome. We will overcome. We will overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we will overcome.

ADAMS: In 1947, Zilphia Horton went to New York City, as she did every year, to raise money for Highlander. She sang the song there for Pete Seeger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PETE SEEGER: For those who don't know it, now is a good time to learn it. It's not hard, only one line changes in each verse. The next verse says...

(Singing) We walk hand in hand.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We walk hand in hand.

SEEGER: Sing it again.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We walk hand in hand.

BLOCK: In Southern California in the early 1950s, the song reached Guy Carawan. He was finishing graduate work in sociology at UCLA and doing some singing himself. He also learned about the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and that's where he ended up. Candi Carawan and her husband met as the center's focus was shifting to civil rights, and "We Shall Overcome" was about to become an inspiring force.

CANDI CARAWAN: I had come South myself from California to Nashville, and it was the spring of 1960 when the sit-ins took place in Nashville. I've gotten very involved in the sit-ins and came up to a Highlander weekend for students from about half a dozen cities who'd been carrying on the sit-in movement. And Guy was there trying to find out what songs we were using as part of our demonstrations, and mostly, we didn't have a lot of songs. And he taught us a number of songs that weekend, and one of them was "We Shall Overcome." And I can remember this electrifying feeling when we heard it that that song just said exactly what we were doing and what we were feeling.

GUY CARAWAN: But two weeks later at Shaw University, 200 student leaders from around the south had come together to have their own youth gathering because two weeks later, SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would be having their gathering, but the students said no. We're going to have our own gathering and figure out our version of this, but that song caught on that weekend. And then at a certain point, those young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said lay that guitar down, boy. We can do this song better. And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

THE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.

ADAMS: The Freedom Singers. The group was organized in Albany, Georgia, by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The singers were Cordell Reagon, Charles Neblett, Rutha Harris and Bernice Johnson, who was a preacher's daughter and knew the song as I will overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

SINGERS: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

ADAMS: She recalls the change to "We Shall Overcome" as a concession that helped bring whites and blacks closer in the civil rights struggle.

BERNICE JOHNSON-REAGON: I remember when the organizers came to Albany, and I was singing I'll overcome, and I was stopped by Cordell, who says it's not I'll. It's we. And he had gotten this lesson from Highlander and from Guy. And I looked at him, and, you know, we've been singing this song all of our lives. And here's this guy who just learned the song, and he's telling us how to sing it. And you know what I said to myself, if you need it, you got it. What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country fighting against injustice, and you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

ADAMS: Bernice Johnson-Reagon of The Freedom Singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

SINGERS: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome.

ADAMS: The song was carried by the civil rights movement throughout the South, a song that rose in air that was tinged with teargas, that was a murmur of men and women at night in a Southern jail and an affirmation sung by hundreds of thousands within sight of the Capitol dome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

BLOCK: You can hear a longer version of Noah Adams' 1999 story about "We Shall Overcome" at nprmusic.org. You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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