We Shall Overcome! Part 2


Decades after singing We Shall Overcome at numerous mass meetings, I gradually started giving more thought to the song’s title, which was and is both inspirational and aspirational. It evoked feelings of both hope and expectation. In particular, I started giving thought to the first two words – We Shall. In doing so, I came to the following conclusions. “We” means just that – the collective, the group, not the individual. The protest version of the song used first person plural, rather than first person singular, for a reason [For more information on the history of We Shall Overcome, click on . To paraphrase Dr. King, no one is truly free until we are all free. In other words, if my brother or sister is not free from discrimination, I cannot claim to be truly free either. Further, I am also compelled to acknowledge that because of the discrimination and bigotry others experience – due to their race, language, immigration status, surname, income, country of origin, culture, gender, gender identity, religion, age, or who they love – the struggle for human and civil rights continues. “We” also reminds me of a quote by W.E.B. Dubois that emphasizes We-ness over Me-ness – I must become my brother’s keeper, for if I do not, he will surely bring me down in his ruin.

The second word, “shall”, means that overcoming oppression is a process, not an event, and, as the old-school church folk used to say… it will come in the sweet by-and-by. “Shall” also, by definition, refers to some undetermined time in the future. Some, however, have come to believe that because of their zip code, income, or occupation, they have already overcome. Thus, they embrace the view: I have overcome, rather than we shall overcome.

Another view of the I-have-already-overcome notion goes something like this: God has already given me victory; therefore, I have already overcome whatever obstacles I face, including discrimination, bigotry and racism. Interestingly, at the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Day March in Hattiesburg in 2014, I heard several young marchers using past tense, singing we have overcome rather than we shall overcome. After asking them why they changed the words of the song, they informed me that they prefer to use past tense because God had already given them victory over their enemies.

What are your thoughts? Have you already overcome, as evidenced by your income, zip code, or occupation? Or has God ordained that you have already overcome? Or do you believe that the struggle continues? How far has society come in eradicating bigotry, thus hastening the day when we can all manifest Dr. King’s immortal words, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!

I welcome your comments.


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