We Shall Overcome–a Tribute to Dr. King

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  Click here to listen, read the text, and purchase a video.  It’s an amazing speech, full of the truth and rhetorical power one would expect from a devout Christian minister with a Kingdom Vision of Overcoming.

During the event of Dr. King’s speech, a 22-year old folk singer named Joan Baez led those in the Washington Mall (around 300,000 people gathered for A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom) in singing “We Shall Overcome.” It became a signature song of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome” was defensively copyrighted by fellow folk singer Pete Seeger and others in 1963, but current research suggests its origin was not in Seeger’s adaptation, but may have begun in the mind of a black woman named Louise Shropshire as If My Jesus Wills (I Do Believe, I’ll Overcome Some Day),” click link to hear.

Shropshire and Dr. King had a personal, loyal, and Christian connection, both viewing Overcoming as being intimately tied to the Truth of Jesus Christ.  Overcoming takes a long view. “If My Jesus Wills” contains lyrics like, “Gonna sing a new song…Gonna wear a new robe…Gonna see my Lord” all of which point directly to Jesus.

About “We Shall Overcome,”  in an interview with Blank on Blank, Seeger said,

It was the only record I ever made which sold. The record was called “We Shall Overcome.” It sold 500,000 copies, which for me was a huge sale. I was singing for some young Lutheran church people in Sundance, Idaho, and there were some older people who were mistrustful of my lefty politics.  They said: ‘Who are you intending to overcome?’ I said: ‘Well, in Selma, Alabama they’re probably thinking of Chief Pritchett.; they will overcome. And I am sure Dr. King is thinking of the system of segregation across the whole country, not just the South. For me, it means the entire world. We’ll overcome our tendencies to solve our problems with killing and learn to work together to bring this world together.’

It is doubtful that Dr. King was thinking simply of ending segregation—important though that was.  His sights were set on a distant mountain.  In a speech to the Temple Israel of Hollywood, Dr. King is quoted as saying,


Oh, I know that there are still dark and difficult days ahead. Before we get there some more of us will have to get scarred up a bit. Before we reach that majestic land some more will be called bad names. Some will be called reds and communists simply because they believe in the brotherhood of man. Before we get there some more will have to be thrown into crowded, frustrating, and depressing jail cells. Before we get there maybe somebody else like a Medgar Evers and the three civil rights workers in Mississippi this summer will have to face physical death. If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy,

“Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words: “the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”


I wonder if something of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement died along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the day he was killed:

  • Shropshire’s “If My Jesus Wills…I’ll Overcome Some Day” (a vastly spiritual song of hope) had already been adapted by Seeger and others.  Jesus may have been willing, but was no longer welcome as the song became “We Shall Overcome” with no mention of Jesus or God whatsoever as our source of strength, perseverance, help, comfort, or faith.
  • Dr. King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” focus heavenward on the triumphant glory of the Lord was pinned down with earthly shackles and worldly concerns, and the best we could do apart from Christ was linking human arms for manmade marches.
  • Dr. King’s words—preached in a movement inspired by faith in Jesus Christ—were reduced to the political power of people to overpower–not actually overcome–by sheer numbers instead of by the eternally powerful “content of their characters” which truly transforms in the eternal scope.

Seeger’s view of everyone playing nicely together isn’t what Dr. King preached.  King did not preach so that we could have an imitation–a human-centered movement of earthbound people with a social conscience.  He preached Overcoming! 

He preached a message of Christian conscience for those looking to God for help.

King preached faith; he preached Truth; he preached love and service;

he reminded American blacks that they are among the world’s richest people, though some are impoverished by US standards; he preached non-violent protesting;

he lived Kingdom Actions like those of his Savior Jesus Christ; and he powerfully preached Kingdom ways of Overcoming…peacefully, truthfully, and ultimately triumphantly.

we shall overcome picture lg


Categories Articles, Articles and Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on August 28, 2013

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