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An Anthem for a Movement
On Martin Luther King Day, we remember not only the reverend doctor who spoke out against injustice and inequity; we celebrate the civil rights movement itself. Its success depended on the hard work of those like Dr. King, but it utilized powerful symbols to bring unity and energy to the cause. The hymn “We Shall Overcome” served as an unofficial rallying cry to the civil rights movement.
“We Shall Overcome” served the civil rights movement so well for a number of reasons. There are probably many more, but I have identified the following:
The tone is hopeful. Anger and protest have their place, but without offering a better vision—like Dr. King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech—people are not encouraged to be proactive. Though they imply a context of struggle, the images evoked in “We Shall Overcome” are entirely positive. This stands in contrast to the negative focus of prejudice.
It is time-honored. The hymn predates the Jim Crow era (though, of course, not the greater cause of freedom for African Americans). It doesn't require its performers or interpreters to be musically contemporary. Such spirituals are relevant to both young and old. The use of a traditional hymn emphasizes that the struggle for freedom is not a fad.
It is easy to learn and sing. “We Shall Overcome” has a simple melody that many can learn after only one hearing, and join into singing right away. Repetition in the melody and lyrics mean there is little to remember. One can repeat verses without sounding redundant. Large crowds don't need handouts to participate.
It emphasizes unity. The words we and all, and phrases like “hand-in-hand” urge solidarity and recognize a shared destiny. Movements know nothing of individualism, and neither does successful change.
It is a song of faith. The fact that this is a hymn gives it a weight it would not otherwise have. The assertion that “The Lord will see us through” implies not only that victory is certain, but that God has taken sides in this battle.
When choosing symbols in current affairs, we can remember “We Shall Overcome.” There is much to learn from those like Dr. King who have gone before us and know that we are not alone.