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The seeds of “We Shall Overcome”

Charles A. Tindley / Wikipedia

By the end of his long life, he had founded one of the largest Methodist congregations serving the African-American community on the east coast. And every time “We Shall Overcome” is sung somewhere in the world, Charles A. Tindley’s influence can still be felt.

Tindley wasn’t born in Delaware, and he didn’t die here. But from 1885, when the charismatic preacher was 34 years old, and for 17 years thereafter, he served two or three-year terms at a series of Methodist churches throughout Delmarva, especially focussed in northern Delaware: South Wilmington, Odessa, Ezion. Tindley was elevated to presiding elder of the Wilmington district, 1899-1902.

During his long life Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933) composed 47 hymns, 6 of which are today still found in The United Methodist Hymnal. “We Shall Overcome” is not one of them.

There is no doubt, however, that the song we know by that name derives both its song structure and its title from Tindley. He first published “I’ll Overcome Some Day” in 1900 in his book “New Songs of the Gospel” (song # 27). In “I’ll Overcome Someday,” he drew on the biblical verse from Galatians 6:9, which promised early Christians that good deeds would someday bring rewards.  Tindley’s song included the line, “If in my heart I do not yield, I’ll overcome some day.”  

An African-American Baptist choir director named Louise Shropshire derived the lyrics for her 1930 hymn “If My Jesus Wills” from Tindley’s original. Shropshire’s lyrics carried a similar message:

   I’ll Overcome, I’ll Overcome, I’ll Overcome Someday

   If My Jesus Wills, I Do Believe, I’ll Overcome Someday

Shropshire may well have directly shared “If My Jesus Wills” with South Carolina teacher Zilphia Horton. The two appear to have met in 1935, at the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in Cincinnati.

Either way, Horton learned, and later published, the tune she subsequently referred to as “We Will Overcome” in 1947 in the People’s Songs Bulletin (a publication of People’s Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director and guiding spirit) with an introduction to its lineage. She was then music director of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, TN, an adult education school that trained union organizers. 

“We Will Overcome” was Zilphia Horton’s favorite song, and she taught it to countless others, including Pete Seeger. Seeger added verses to Horton’s version, starting with the lines “We’ll walk hand in hand” and “The whole wide world around.” He switched out “will” for “shall” in the title. Still another change involved broadening out  the narrative voice to “We” rather than “I,” particularly as people sang it in different ways.   

Louise Shropshire (l) and Zilphia Horton.  Shropshire: wikipedia; Horton: The Center for Creative Photography
Louise Shropshire (l) and Zilphia Horton.

Though Seeger sometimes received credit for that change, he attributed it to Septima Clark, an African-American educator and civil-rights activist from South Carolina.  “We” seemed to give the song a more universal and collective appeal.

What an appeal it has had. In his day, Reverend Charles A. Tindley was able to draw people of multiple races to his church ministry. Spreading out from his own sphere, Tindley’s songs have been adopted and proliferated by white and black churches alike. And one song in particular has reverberated far beyond church walls to become an anthem of hope heard round the world.

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