Decades later, "We Shall Overcome" — forever linked with the struggle of blacks for civil rights — has become a global song of defiance.
But its roots as a vehicle for social change can be traced to Tennessee in 1957, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. heard "We Shall Overcome" for the first time — performed by Dutchess Junction resident Pete Seeger.
"We Shall Overcome," according to the Library of Congress website, www.loc.gov., "was the most powerful song of the 20th century."
"Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of 'We Shall Overcome' might be some of the most influential words in the English language," the website says....
Seeger, 91, learned "We Shall Overcome" in 1946 from Zilphia Horton, whose husband co-founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee . The school's original mission, according to www.highlandercenter.org, was to educate "rural and industrial leaders for a new social order."
The school was active in the labor and civil rights movements and welcomed Seeger, Rosa Parks and King for its 25th anniversary in 1957, a year after the Montgomery bus boycott ended with the desegregation of that Alabama city's bus system.
Horton had learned the song from striking tobacco workers from South Carolina who visited the Highlander Folk School many years earlier, Seeger said. She shared "We Shall Overcome," which had evolved from a gospel song, with Seeger in 1946.
From left, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy at Highlander in 1957. Photo from “Where Have All the Fowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir.”
After Seeger played "We Shall Overcome" at that anniversary celebration for the Highlander School, King approached him and said, "I like the songs you led."
"The next day," Seeger said, "a friend of mine drove him to a speaking engagement in Kentucky. He was sitting in the back seat, saying, ' "We Shall Overcome,'' that song really sticks.' "
Steve Klein, spokesman for The King Center in Atlanta, did not dispute Seeger's account.
Klein said he heard the late Coretta Scott King, King's widow and the founder of The King Center, "talk about Pete on a first-name basis, in a reverential way."
Klein called Seeger a "moral giant."
"I tried to sing it with a banjo," Seeger said in a recent telephone interview with the Journal, "but it didn't work."
"There is no question about it — a very courageous man as well as a great artist and a visionary," Klein said. "He brings hope wherever he goes."
"We Shall Overcome" remains as relevant today as it was decades ago, Klein said.
"It's the song that ends almost every meeting of civil rights convocations," Klein continued. "It's almost like a benediction song, in a way.
According to the Library of Congress, "We Shall Overcome" was "sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night."
"In the decades since, the song has circled the globe and has been embraced by civil rights and pro-democracy movements in dozens of nations worldwide," the Library of Congress said.
The copyright for "We Shall Overcome" is owned by Seeger, Horton, Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan, with proceeds earned by the song benefiting the We Shall Overcome Fund.
During the 1960s, Shirley Adams, executive director of the Catharine Street Community Center in Poughkeepsie, grew up in Georgia and attended college in North Carolina. The center is the sponsor of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast in the City of Poughkeepsie every January.
Asked if she remembered the role that "We Shall Overcome" played during the civil rights movement, she responded, "Oh my goodness, yes."
Adams said "We Shall Overcome," like "Amazing Grace," is a song of encouragement and "where we draw our strength from."
"It always makes you feel good to hear those songs," she said. "For the whole struggle of slavery, for the whole struggle of equal rights and the struggle of all kinds of freedoms, those songs are associated with that and the need for drawing upon strength from within; but it also draws strength from people around you. When you sing those songs, you are usually with people you care about."
Adams added that she was not surprised to learn how Seeger shared "We Shall Overcome" with King.
"He is such a wonderful, wonderful source of inspiration, in terms of songs of encouragement," Adams said of Seeger. "I am not surprised that he was part of that history. I am delighted to hear that."
March to Selma: Nuns singing in tent
Seeger saw King again in 1965, when Seeger and his wife, Toshi, participated in the historic voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.
"Both Toshi and I put on our hiking shoes and joined the march," Seeger said. "All the men slept in one big tent, and the women in one big tent, on the side of the road."
Seeger saw King at the head of the march, but did not speak with him.
1967 Martin Luther King
In 1967, during a rally against the Vietnam War held at United Nations Plaza in Manhattan, Seeger performed and King spoke.
"I was singing there, up on the speaker's stand, when I saw a black car inching its way through the dense crowd," Seeger recalled. "Then I heard a whisper, 'He's here, he's here.' The car finally inched up, only about 20 feet from the speaker's platform. It took six people to keep the crowds away so King could walk about 20 feet. This adoring crowd wanted to get close to him. I thought to myself, 'How could someone live with this adoration?' It took him five minutes to go 20 feet. … I just said 'Hello.' That was all."(source: Poughkeepsie Journal)
Pete Seeger on the song "We Shall Overcome".