We Shall Overcome lyrically descended from a hymn by Rev Tindley called “I’ll Overcome Some Day”, which was first published in 1900.
Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley (1851 –1933), the son of a slave, was an American Methodist minister and author of approximately 50 gospel hymns, known as “The Prince of Preachers“.
He was a lyricist and poet whose words spoke directly to the feelings of his audiences, most of whom were often poor, illiterate people, just arrived in the North.
“I’ll Overcome Some Day” originated as a work song when slaves sang phrases such as “I’ll be all right someday” as they worked in the fields, before becoming known in the churches.
The life of slaves was very hard, and music was one of the few things that made it tolerable.
In 1908, during a coal-mine strike in Birmingham, Alabama, more than 10,000 black and white workers met every day and sang “I Will Overcome.”
Four decades later, that same song echoed in another Southern strike, a five-month strike against the American Tobacco Co. in 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina, due to the workers’ request to have a fair wage at the tobacco processing factory where they were employed. It was sung by those tobacco workers, who were mostly female and African American, as a spirit-raising anthem.
To help them remain optimistic during that cold, wet winter at the end of each day’s picketing a woman named Lucille Simmons led the strikers in this song. They sang together “We will overcome”, and added new verses, such as “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight”. “We” seemed to give the song a more universal and collective appeal.
Music scholars have pointed out that the first half of “We Shall Overcome” drew on the 18th-century European hymn “O Sanctissima”, a famous Catholic chant also known as “The Sicilian Mariners Hymn”. This refers to a tradition of Sicilian seamen, who used to end each day on their ships by singing it in unison as an invocation of their protector, the Virgin Mary. The first lines of the Latin text are similar to the final line of the 12th-century prayer “Salve Regina”: “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.”