New York Series: Guy Carawan ‘We Shall Overcome’

We shall overcome some day

Some songs are written with such great embodiment of the human spirit that they become far bigger than a simple, melodic hook you whistle in the shower. They are the songs that represent a period in time for a group of oppressed people and epitomize the challenges they faced on a daily basis. Unlike other songs that come and go as life drifts on, these anthems leave such an impact that they are still read about in history books years later. For the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the protest song “We Shall Overcome” was sang far and wide in tribute to peaceful protest. While the song was influential to many groups in the 1960s, its significance in the LGBT movement came after the Stonewall riots of New York in 1969.

Most people know that Pride Month is in June, however, many don’t realize that’s because on June 28, 1969, the catalyst for the LGBT movement occurred in riot form at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The Stonewall Inn was a well-known, mafia-run gay night club which hosted an array of illegal activities from an absent liquor license and prostitution to dealing drugs. While the bar owners were normally tipped off about police raids, on the night of the 1969 riot, they weren’t told anything would be happening. The police barricaded the 200+ patrons and employees in the bar and began to arrest all the transvestites they could find.

As the cops were arresting patrons, to their surprise, bystanders began to push back against the heavy police presence in the form of verbal taunts and thrown bottles. At that point, raids on gay bars were becoming routine and, for the LGBT community, the raid on the Stonewall Inn was the last straw. As police were dragging people into their paddy wagon, the crowd began to boil and violence soon erupted. Bricks and bottles were being thrown at the cops as more people from around the neighborhood began to join in on the protest, forcing the police into a rare retreat. While some of the crowd turned violent, many others committed to nonviolence in the form of jokes, kick-lines and songs.

As an unstable riot occurred all around, the protest hymn “We Shall Overcome” echoed through the streets long into the night. For days following the Stonewall riot, more protests, mostly nonviolent, began to pop up all around the city. A gay community began to form and within six months two gay activist organizations were established in New York. The movement was given legs, and by June 28 of the following year, the first gay pride marches took place in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to commemorate the anniversary of the riots. “We Shall Overcome” was a vital tool used to demonstrate nonviolence throughout each protest.

Originally written as a hymn titled “I’ll Overcome Someday” by Charles Albert Tindley in 1900, the song was warped multiple times throughout history before it became the protest anthem we know today. It was sang by tobacco workers, vagabond travelers, and eventually political activists. It became associated with the Civil Rights Movement in 1959 when Guy Carawan sang his and Pete Seeger’s version of the song at a nonviolent civil rights protest. From there, other artists began using it as a protest tool, playing it at rallies, folk festivals and other demonstrations to make it clear to the world that oppression will not be tolerated.

‘We Shall Overcome’ Lyrics:

We shall overcome
We shall overcome

We shall overcome some day

CHORUS:
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand some day
CHORUS
We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day
CHORUS
We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid some day
CHORUS
We are not alone
We are not alone
We are not alone some day
CHORUS
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day
CHORUS
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
CHORUS