In 1957, Pete Seeger, American folk singer and social activist, sang “We Shall Overcome” at the Highlander Folk School to an audience that included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the young African-American Baptist minister who had become the most visible Civil Rights leader in the United States, who, on the way to his next stop, in Kentucky, remarked “The song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”
He had changed “I’ll” overcome into “We shall”, because he thought it had a more open sound. Explaining the shift, he said “‘We will’ has alliteration to it, but ‘We shall’ opens the mouth wider; the ‘i’ in ‘will’ is not an easy vowel to sing well ….”
He had also added some verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand” and “The whole wide world around”).
From 1959, the song became associated with the Civil Rights Movement, which was focused on nonviolent activism, and quickly became its unofficial anthem. The Movement was an organized effort by black Americans to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law.
Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s, such as Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies, folk festivals, and concerts in the North and made it widely known. Its simple words helped it to become the anthem in battles for freedom all over the world. People generally sing it in groups after a song leader who calls out the verses.