A U.S. District Court ruled on September 8 that the first verse of the iconic song of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” should be free of a copyright.
I’m usually an advocate of freeing culture from patents and paywalls and allowing songs and knowledge to be shared widely. But after learning about the recent court ruling, I feel differently about this case.
“We Shall Overcome” was adapted from a song sung by Lucille Simmons during a protracted strike of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers union, a union made up primarily of Black women. The 1945 strike targeted the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina. Simmons most likely adapted the song from a hymn.
From there, the song made its way to the Highlander Folk School—today the Highlander Research and Education Center—in Tennessee, where Zilphia Horton, Pete Seeger, and others changed a few words of the first verse and added several new verses. “We Shall Overcome” became a cornerstone of civil rights sit-ins, marches, and gatherings of all kinds, especially in the South, lifting the spirits of African Americans and their allies who were subject to police violence, attack dogs, fire hoses, and mobs of White supremacists.
In 1960 and 1963, copyrights for the song were filed. Copyrights like these assure that songs aren’t used in advertising jingles or in other ways appropriated.
The copyrights worked. It allowed the song to continue spreading throughout movements in the United States and the rest of the world, with hundreds of thousands singing it in Wenceslas Square during Prague’s “Velvet Revolution,” others bringing it to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and to the Students Federation of India in the 1970s. In the United States, farmworkers sung it in Spanish, and Martin Luther King Jr. included the first verse in his last sermon before his assassination.
“We Shall Overcome” has been managed by a trusted group to ensure the integrity of the original song.
Royalties for the song were assigned to the We Shall Overcome Fund, administered by the Highlander Center. Via this fund, African American organizations throughout the South receive small grants for their work on culture, the arts, and justice: Epic Girl, which links at-risk girls to mentors; The Counter Narrative Project, which advocates for gay Black men; and The Greensboro Mural Project, which has brought images of Black heroines and “love letters to the city” to public spaces around the city.
“We Shall Overcome” has been managed by a trusted group to ensure the integrity of the original song and to keep it, and its royalties, in service to building the power of African Americans and other marginalized people, in the United States and around the world.
But the court ruling could change all that. That was unwelcome news at the 85th anniversary homecoming gathering of the Highlander Center, which I attended last weekend.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Highlander Center’s new co-executive director, told those gathered that losing the royalties would be a blow to a source of funding that has benefited “the very people who made that song what it is and their descendants.”
Highlander Center, located in New Market, Tennessee, is a retreat center for movement building, bringing together young and old, people of all races, who come primarily from the South and from Appalachia. The likes of Rosa Parks and MLK and Pete Seeger have spent time at Highlander, as have organizers who work for coal miners’ rights, support immigrants, fight mountaintop removal, and advocate for the rights of working class communities throughout Appalachia and the South, many of whom lived for decades under White supremacy and the dominance of extractive corporations.
“Regardless of that decision, we’re going to keep fighting for that song.”
The anniversary gathering at Highlander centered on workshops about movement building, youth activism, and local power. The Saturday night anniversary celebration included young poets, Appalachian mountain singers, and original members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers.
Henderson spoke there of the “We Shall Overcome” court ruling: “In a moment when White supremacy is overtly killing us, the very thing that is helping pour resources into the very communities that need it the most is being destroyed.”
Henderson brought up to the stage aged veterans of the Mississippi freedom struggle and Black youth visiting Highlander for the first time, and they linked arms.
“Regardless of that decision, we’re going to keep fighting for that song,” Henderson told the crowd. “There ain’t no law that can stop us.”
And then all those gathered at Highlander, from throughout the South and beyond, linked arms and together sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Clearly, this song, which has meant so much to the Black freedom struggle, should not be taken from the community that created it.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson was the Highlander Center’s first African American co-director. This was incorrect; Hubert Sapp was the first Black director, from 1984-1993. We regret the error.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.