Overcoming colours and borders: The story behind We Shall Overcome

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

As an Indian kid growing up in a primary school, mornings meant most half-awake little souls had to sing synchronised songs in the assembly sometimes under a hot sun. Hum honge kamyaab, hum honge kamyaab, hum honge kamyaab ek din… This was a regular that we were forced to sing almost every day.

A few years later, I shifted to a Christian school where English was the lingua franca of the school assembly. We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome one day… The lyrics seemed different but the tune was the same and so was the dead attitude with which we sang this song. What was I meant to overcome anyway? I was a free kid in a free country, away from the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Life seemed perfect.

Little did I know that this song came from people who weren’t free, people whose life wasn’t perfect…

Hum honge kamyaab sounds like a song for a new hope, a new freedom, a perfect song that would fit the Indian freedom movement. Although Indian freedom fighters had their own songs of hope, this was no swadesi song. In fact, noted Hindi poet Girija Kumar Mathur translated it from the English original and popularised it in Indian schools during the 80s and 90s.

Dig deeper and we find that We Shall Overcome has its origins in gospel music. The year was 1900; a new century had dawned but racism in the USA hadn’t changed. Black people in white tiled churches still held on to some hope as they sang a song not for the Lord, but for themselves. I’ll Overcome Some Day was this song’s name.

This evolved into a protest song for not just the blacks, but for everyone who had to face oppression. A passage from 1909s United Mine Worker’s Journal reads, ‘ Last year at a strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, 'We Will Overcome'’.

The ‘I’ had been replaced by ‘we’, echoing unity and solidarity.

Soot formed a dark layer on the black and white skins of these miners but they were united in their fight for better working conditions by the power of music.

Martin Luther King Jr has quoted the song in many of his speeches. (Image Credits- Medium)

Years passed and We Shall Overcome still echoed in the ears of protesters. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing in the 60s, with black rights leaders ensuring that they ‘will overcome’ all barriers indeed to walk the road to equality. Dr Martin Luther King Jr in his commanding voice delivered a sermon in Memphis quoting the song.

‘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 towards justice.’

But this ‘moral universe’ seems to be twisted as this was to be his last sermon. A month later, King was shot in Memphis by a white extremist.

Some fifty thousand people showed up at King’s funeral, and they broke into a heartfelt rendition of the same song that had brought them together. From Mexican farmworkers in America to rebels fighting for Bangladesh’s independence to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, We Shall Overcome took the form of several local ‘covers’ and clearly became an official anthem of protests all over the world.

School children singing 'Hum Honge Kamyaab' in their school's annual function. (Image Credits- YouTube)

Even today, it’s much much more than a school assembly song. Communist organisations in Indian colleges (like Students Federation of India) have made it their struggle song since the 1970s. In the communist stronghold of Kerala the translated version is called Nammal Vijayikkum.

In 2009, when a black President entered the White House, a civilian marked Barack Obama’s inauguration by holding a banner near the Capitol. The banner read ‘WE HAVE OVERCOME’.

Be it the socialists or the capitalists, We Shall Overcome originated from the gospel but it has become a song for everyone who’s oppressed, sung by everyone who doesn’t have a voice…

Shaurya Singh Thapa