DR. KINGS’S FIRST PUBLIC UTTERANCE OF THE PHRASE
“We Shall Overcome”
Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr.
His Original annotated Speech (20 pages) given by King before the United Church of Christ – General Synod at the Palmer House in Chicago on 6 July 1965:
“The Church’s Role in The Civil Rights Movement”
“Let me say finally that we must all maintain faith in the future. As we struggle to make justice a reality we do not struggle alone, but God struggles with us … So I can say more than ever before: We shall overcome!!”
This is King’s own copy of his critical speech given a few months after the Selma-Montgomery march, a month before he would publicly oppose the Vietnam War, & just 3 weeks before his People To People tour of northern U.S. cities would culminate with a mass march on Chicago city hall.
The slogan, “We shall overcome” was first a song – derived from two African American Spirituals: The melody from the 19th-century spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me” (dating from before the Civil War), and the lyrics from “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (Charles Tindley – 1900).
In 1946, several hundred employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina were on strike. They sang on the picket line to keep their spirits. Lucille Simmons started singing the song on the picket line and changed one important word from “I ” to “We”.
Zilphia Horton learned it when a group of strikers visited the Highlander Folk School, the Labor Education Center in Tennessee. She taught it to Pete Seeger and they published it as “We Shall Overcome” in the People’s Songs Bulletin. In 1952, Seeger taught it to Guy & Candy Carawan & Frank Hamilton. Guy introduced the song to the founding convention of SNCC (student non-violent Coordinating Committee) in North Carolina. It swept the country. Peter, Paul & Mary introduce the song to audiences across the country & Joan Baez sang it at the 1963 March on Washington.
Then, on December 10, 1964 in Oslo, Norway, Martin Luther quoted the title of the song in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. President Johnson also quoted it in a civil rights speech to Congress on March 15, 1965.
Finally, on July 6, 1965, the leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, first used “We shall Overcome” in a speech to the public and the tradition was set: “We shall Overcome” became the slogan of the Civil Rights Movement.