In August 1963, Joan Baez led a crowd of 300,000 in several verses taken from “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Even President Lyndon Johnson, himself a Southerner, used the phrase “we shall overcome” in a speech delivered after the violent attacks on Civil Rights demonstrators during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, where it had been taken up as a rally cry.
He said: “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their struggle must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Ten years earlier King had already noted that segregation had inflicted deep wounds not only on black people, but on the nation as a whole, and had added a tragic remark: “Many unconsciously wondered whether they actually deserved any better conditions. Their minds and their souls were so conditioned to the system of segregation that they submissively adjusted themselves to things as they were. This is the ultimate tragedy of segregation. It not only harms one physically, but injures one spiritually”.
In his nonviolent protest against injustice, he always tried to inculcate in his people a sense of dignity and self-respect. His appeals for non-violence had always been honoured by the Negroes, despite arrests and troubles of any kind, even the bombing of his home in 1956.
Martin Luther King recited words from “We Shall Overcome” in his final sermon delivered in Memphis on 31 March 1968, four days before his death, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.
He had done so in a similar rousing sermon delivered in 1965 before an interfaith congregation at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California, while in his 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he had delivered a seventeen-minute speech, later known as “I Have a Dream”, in which he had called for an end to racism.
Its most famous passage was toward the end, when he departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme “I have a dream” where he described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred.
This was prompted by the famous African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who had shouted from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
Mahalia Jackson used to sing “We Shall Overcome” at the meetings of the Civil Rights movement and its words echoed some days later in the singing of over fifty thousand people at King’s funeral.
Since its beginning, when the song was used to show that African Americans intended to overcome prejudice and segregation, it has been sung in a variety of protests worldwide, creating a sense of community and shared experience.