Pete Seeger and “We Shall Overcome”

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, in  1957.

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy, in 1957.

Earlier this year,  on January 27, acclaimed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away at the age of ninety-four.  Seeger had a long and distinguished career, beginning in the 1930s when he was just a teenager. He was instrumental in the movement to re-popularize folk music in the 1950s and 1960s; was blacklisted for his leftist political ideals and was indicted for contempt of congress for his refusal to answer questions from bullying House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955; and was an early champion of the music of Bob Dylan. Later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, he used his music to protest the Vietnam War, and lent his talents to many other causes. He performed at the 2009 inaugural concert for President Barack Obama, and continued writing and performing tirelessly up until the end of his life.

But one of the things Seeger is most known for is the song “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Seeger didn’t write “We Shall Overcome.” Like many folk songs, it was pieced together from several sources and passed from musician to musician, each adding their own unique element to it, though it was mostly derived from a 1901 gospel song called “I’ll Overcome Someday.” By the time Seeger began performing the song, it had become “We Will Overcome.” Seeger changed the key lyric slightly, “We will” became “We shall,” as he felt that the revised phrase had a powerful, open sound when sung. He also wrote several new verses for the song. Seeger’s version of the song was performed by many folk singers, and quickly became popular amongst activists fighting for civil rights and laborers’ rights*. Seeger played the song at a 1957 performance: Martin Luther King Jr. was in the audience. Though King was familiar with the song, he was particularly struck by Seeger’s version.

By the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” was known by everyone in the Civil Rights Movement, and they sang it proudly and defiantly at protests and gatherings, to give themselves strength and confidence to face the oppressive forces they were challenging. It was performed at the famous 1963 March on Washington, though not by Seeger; he was out of country with his family, so the song was performed by popular folk singer Joan Baez. (Another Seeger song, “If I Had a Hammer” was also performed at the March, by folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary.)

In an interview with radio host Tavis Smiley, conducted in 2012, Seeger reflects on his life and long career, including the evolution of “We Shall Overcome” and how it came to be part of the Civil Rights Movement. Near the end, he sums up his beliefs on the power of social protest: “The people with money can break up any big thing they want, but they don’t know what to do when there are millions of little things, so I  say, go ahead with your little things and don’t think they are unimportant.”

“We Shall Overcome” was just one of the many little things Seeger contributed during his lifetime, and it played a part in changing the world.

To learn more about the 1963 March on Washington and the people who bravely stood together singing “We Shall Overcome,” please check out our acclaimed book, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-159935372-2) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For further reading, please see the rest of our Civil Rights Movement series.

-Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

*In addition to its association with the American Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” has been an anthem for many oppressed peoples fighting for civil rights. It became particularly significant in South Africa, where it was sung by freedom fighter Frederick John Harris, prior to his execution for a bombing in protest of the country’s apartheid policy. A recorded version of the song, performed by Seeger, but with the last line, “We shall all be free,” sung by Harris was suppressed by the government, but became important to the anti-apartheid movement.

Special Guest Blog: Fifty Years After the March on Washington, Where Are We Today?


(Editor’s Note: This August 28 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington. To mark this momentous occasion in American history, we will be running several blogs over the rest of this month examining the state of civil rights in America. To start, we present a special guest blog by David Aretha, author of numerous books in Morgan Reynolds’ The Civil Rights Movement series, including its two most recent additions, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington and Brown v. Board of Education.)

During his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. bellowed “I have a dream” eight times, often following with metaphorical phrases. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He dreamed that the state of Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,” would be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

Looking to the heavens and then shaking his head, King declared to a crowd of 250,000: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

 King roused the crowd so much that shortly afterward he had a look of fear on his face. “You was smoking,” King’s friend Clarence Jones told him afterward. “The words was so hot they was just burning off the page!” Watching on television at the White House, President Kennedy said of King: “He’s damned good. Damned good.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this August, educators and journalists are asking the question: “Have Martin Luther King’s dreams been fulfilled?” Are Americans today judged by the “content of their character?” Does American justice roll “down like waters?” Some respondents—politicians, historians, sociologists, and people on the street—will say yes, the dream has been fulfilled. But many others will say that we have a long, long way to go.

During the 40th anniversary of the March, in 2003, cultural geographer Derek Alderman noted that at least 730 cities and towns had honored the beloved icon with a street name, mostly in African American neighborhoods. Sadly, most of those streets had become boulevards of despair.

It is ironic that virtually every Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in America is a street of abandoned buildings, abandoned businesses, abandoned people, abandoned dreams,” stated James P. Danky of the Wisconsin Historical Society. “Those who honor King’s name need to think about fulfilling the promise of his dream to those who have been forsaken in our inner cities.”

In many ways, King’s dreams have come true. The Civil Rights Act spelled doom for government-sanctioned segregation; by the 1970s, the only “Coloreds Only” signs you’d find would be on abandoned buildings in the rural South. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, virtually every African American could register to vote without hindrance. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), formed in 1965, has been mostly successful in one of its major initiatives: preventing workers from being denied jobs based on their race.

Some conservatives claim that government has gone overboard in helping African Americans—to the point where whites are the ones discriminated against. They point to affirmative-action initiatives in higher education. To give minority students a break after generations of oppression, federal legislation allowed schools to accept a certain percentage of minority applicants even if some white applicants had better test scores. Also, in hundreds of American cities, judges’ “busing” decrees resulted in black students being transported to predominantly white schools—and vice versa—to achieve racial balance. Both of these practices were hotly debated from the late 1960s to the 21st century. In recent decades, courts have greatly rolled back affirmative-action and busing initiatives.

While African Americans have virtually achieved equal-rights status in terms of jobs, housing, voting, etc., they do not enjoy equal prosperity. Far from it. In 2010, the median-average household income for African Americans was $32,068, compared to $50,673 for whites. In 2011, approximately 28 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line (an increase from 25 percent in 2005), compared to about 9 percent of whites.

During the recent recession, the black unemployment rate jumped from 8 to 16 percent while the white rate went from only 4 to 8 percent. Inner-city schools have become such “failure factories” that many students never graduate high school. According to a 2004 book by Thomas M. Shapiro, “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”

Conservatives claim that black Americans are responsible for their own hardship. They note the fact that more than 70 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock. Poor family values, they say, is the problem. They point to Newark, New Jersey, where a nation-high $22,000 a year was spent to educate each student, yet half of the school system’s students did not graduate. Many whites have long been fed up with having to spend their tax dollars on welfare programs and food stamps (even though such programs are just tiny percentages of state and federal budgets).

But here’s something to think about: Traditionally in America, families need about three generations before they move into the upper middle class. Generally speaking, the first generation—the one that immigrates to the United States—is working class, the second generation is middle class, and the third generation enters the professional ranks and moves into the upper middle class. While many African American families have been in the United States for more than a century, they have had full rights for only a short period of time.

Say a black man was born in 1963 and had a daughter at age thirty. The father was among the first generation of African Americans to enjoy equal rights in regards to education, housing, and employment. Thus, he can be compared to first-generation U.S. immigrants, the “bottom of the ladder” citizens who have historically had low-paying jobs. The black man’s daughter could be compared to second-generation immigrants—those who tend to rise to the middle class. But his daughter would be just twenty years old in 2013; she hasn’t even started her career yet.

Black Americans have been greatly hindered by a lack of financial assets. A well-off couple can afford to move to a suburb with a good school system; can pay for their child’s private schooling and college education; can give their child money to help with a down payment on a house; can help pay for their grandchildren’s education; and can leave a large inheritance to their survivors. In 1960, 50 percent of African Americans lived in poverty. Thus, the black Americans of the late 1900s had to make it on their own, without much financial support from Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa.

With more than 80 percent of African Americans living in urban settings—with many renting instead of owning—they have largely missed out on skyrocketing housing appreciation. From January 1970 to March 2007, the median-average price of a new home in the United States soared from $23,600 to $262,600, allowing homeowners to “cash in” big when they sold their homes. African Americans who were unwelcome in the burgeoning suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s (and in some areas, beyond that) missed out on that accumulated wealth—not to mention the benefits of good suburban schools.

In addition, some sociologists claim, many African Americans are still caught up in a “cycle of despair.” Over the centuries, most immigrants have come to the U.S. willing and eager to work hard and achieve the American Dream. But many African Americans never bought in to the American Dream—or at least didn’t think it would work for them. Their ancestors were brought to America against their will and were systematically oppressed up until the 1960s.

As Malcolm X said, “I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American nightmare.” Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael said that his father had naively bought into the American Dream. “My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff . . . ” he said. “He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. . . . The next thing that came to that poor black man was death—from working too hard.”

Those who grow up in poverty and bad school systems often find it difficult to believe that good study habits and hard work will lead to financial success. Some think that drug dealing is the only way to make good money and that being in gangs is their only chance to “be somebody.” According to a 2010 report by the Schott Foundation on Public Education, 53 percent of black male students drop out of high school without a diploma. Antipathy among black males has added to the burden of black women. From 1974 to 2004, the median income of African American men fell 12 percent while the income of black women rose 75 percent.

In most every facet of life, children have a strong tendency to imitate the behavior of their parents. Children of churchgoers, for example, are more likely to go to church as adults. And those whose parents didn’t pursue the American Dream are more likely to not pursue it themselves. It’s part of the “cycle of despair.” Moreover, parents who did not drive down the “highway of success” lack the experience to help their children drive down that proper road.

Most sociologists believe that racism—institutional (aka systematic) racism—still plays a major role in keeping African Americans in poverty. Author Herb Boyd explained in Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today:

. . . examples of institutional racism include laws created by the white majority that severely punish “black” crimes [such as possession of crack cocaine] but are lenient on “white” (such as corporate) crimes; “country club” prisons for executives; harsher sentencing for blacks compared to whites who commit the same crimes; better funding for white parts of a city than for black neighborhoods; a tax system that allows for greater funding for suburban schools than city schools; refusal of corporations to open grocery stores in inner cities, resulting in poor food options for blacks; and a disinterest by the white majority in resolving crises facing the poor, such as gang violence, homelessness, and inadequate health care.

African Americans achieved their legal rights decades ago, and whites and blacks have become a lot more comfortable interacting with each other. Most Americans embrace the idea of sitting down at a “table of brotherhood,” and most are now inclined to judge a person on the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin.

 Unfortunately, the “cycles of despair” still spin, and institutional racism keeps millions of African Americans confined to poverty. Despite the promises of “hope and change” by the country’s first black president, conditions only worsened for African Americans during the recession. Unemployment in black communities skyrocketed. Home foreclosures reached unprecedented levels. The budgets for public schools and social programs were slashed. The black middle class shrunk, and the poverty rate rose.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America still has a long way to go to truly fulfill the dreams of Martin Luther King.

-David Aretha, author

Published in: on August 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Arguments In Supreme Court over Voting Rights Act of 1965

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday, on Wednesday, February 27, while President Obama and many other politicians honored civil rights icon Rosa Parks with a memorial statue in the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about dismantling the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Specifically under discussion was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states (mostly in the South) with a documented history of discriminating against minority voters get permission from the Federal government to make any changes to its voting procedures. This measure was initially supposed to only be in effect for five years, but has been extended multiple times and expanded to help guarantee the rights of non-English speaking voters as well.

Why is this law, so integral to the Civil Rights movement and ensuring the civil liberties of black Americans (and many other minorities), being challenged now? Though there are a number of technical arguments concerning the fact that the law was extended largely on data from 1975, the principal argument seems to be that times have changed. Lawyers from Shelby County, Alabama, who have brought this case to the Supreme Court, argue that discriminatory voting procedures are no longer being practiced, and the states under the jurisdiction of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are being unfairly punished and slandered.

Shelby lawyers argue that the increasing number of prominent minority politicians, and of course, the first black president, Barack Obama, are signs that the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. Statistics were read showing that the black voter turnout in Massachusetts (not covered under Section 5) is much lower than in Mississippi (covered under Section 5). While these facts are heartening, it’s hard not to notice that they don’t prove Section 5 is unnecessary as much as they prove that Section 5 is effective, and arguably, should be expanded. (Indeed, New York Times columnist Charles Blow argues that Section 5 should be expanded far beyond the states it currently covers, both to ensure to fair voting practices for every citizen and also to puncture the argument that Section 5 puts an unfair stigma on the covered states.)

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that voter suppression tactics continue today. As author David Aretha points out in his book Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 both raised questions over whether there was an effort to disenfranchise voters (in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004). There were numerous reports of voter suppression efforts during the 2012 election. And Shelby County, Alabama, the county bringing this case to the Supreme Court, had its own voting rights scandal in 2008 when the federal government demanded the state alter it’s district policies to ensure that minority voters were properly represented.

Still, many of the Supreme Court justices seemed amenable to arguments that the Voting Rights Act’s time had passed. One of the most heated moments of the hearing came when Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that the law’s continued usage was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” This prompted Justice Sonia Sotomayor to later pointedly ask  “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement?”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Though a decision on this case likely won’t be made for some time, this case illustrates vividly that the fight for Civil Rights, fought so hard by Martin Luther King Jr. and millions of others, is far from over.

To learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act, check out Selma and the Voting Rights Act by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-1-59935-056-1) from your local library, or purchase it and other titles in the acclaimed Civil Rights Movement series from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Or get Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor by Sandra Shichtman (ISBN# 978-1-59935-156-8) to learn more about the Justice, and be sure to check out Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s Supreme Court Justices series to learn about many prominent figures in the High Court’s history.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

MLK Memorial: Part 1

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech

Yesterday, the long-awaited Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The official dedication ceremony will be on August 28, but the statue is currently open to the public.

According to NPR, the memorial was initially suggested by King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, in 1984. Twenty-seven years later, the idea was made into a reality in the form of a thirty-foot-tall statue of King’s likeness. NPR reported, “The memorial is the first honoring an African American and the first honoring a person who did not serve as president.”

The Washington Post reported:

The sculpture, called “Stone of Hope” . . . refers to a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said. His statue is designed to look as if he were once a part of the “Mountain of Despair” but is now the “Stone of Hope.”

An artist's rendering of the "Stone of Hope"

August 28 marks the forty-eighth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

On the morning of August 28, 1963, the city of Washington seemed deserted, according to Calvin Craig Miller, author of No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement.

Miller wrote:

Numerous writers would describe the atmosphere as that of a besieged city, as though the country were at war. Yet the force that caused such anxiety was one that carried no weapons. Its leaders promised a peaceful march. . . Its speakers planned to ask for simple, basic rights for African Americans– a chance to cast their ballots in elections, to live and go to school in the same neighborhoods and schools as whites, to get job training, and to earn a minimum wage.

Within hours, however, Kerrily Sapet, author of Political Profiles: John Lewis, wrote, “An estimated 250,000 people, of all races, united in Washington to call for racial justice.”

“The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would become the largest demonstration in American history.”

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

On that day in Washington, D.C., in front of hundreds of thousands of people, Martin Luther King told the crowd:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Sapet wrote, “[King’s] inspiring words captured the hope Americans wanted to feel. At the end of the day, they carried his message home with them, dreaming of a new nation where all people were treated fairly.”

It was his push toward change and his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement that inspired the memorial’s creation. Now, visitors to our nation’s capital can look at his statue and remember how far we have come and far we still have to go.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Movement, check out the following Morgan Reynolds titles and series:

Political Profiles: John Lewis by Kerrily Sapet (ISBN 9781599351308)

No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (ISBN 9781931798433)

The Civil Rights Movement Series (ISBN 9781599350738)

Published in: on August 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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