In 1964, the marchers for civil rights and equality of African Americans sang the song that became known as the Civil Rights anthem: “We Shall Overcome”. With chords and words built from old spirituals, the song was the soundtrack of struggle and Dr. King’s promiseland. What some may not have known is that “We Shall Overcome” was written by folk artist Pete Seeger – a white man. Seeger’s folk music was built on a multicultural foundation, including his folk release of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”, which reached no. 1 on the folk charts.
“We Shall Overcome” was built on the foundation of other gospel songs, including “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn sang by striking tobacco workers while picketing in South Carolina and “We Will Overcome”, by Lucille Simmons. At the time of its development, Seeger was a part of the folk group The Weavers. He taught his version entitled “We Shall Overcome” to his fellow group members and began performing it for civil rights activists during protests.
Pete Seeger lived a life under the microscope of the government for communist activities, even going to prison in 1961. Referring to himself as a “Communist with a small c,” Seeger and The Weavers found themselves facing cancelled performances after the FBI leaked information about their affiliation with the communist party. He was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, which was found to be false a year later. He had previously left The Weavers after they agreed to an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Seeger established the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, which is now under the care of Highlander Research and Education Center. The center provides grants to African American organizers in the South. In 1972, Pete Seeger was elected into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was granted the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1993 and in 1994 he received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given international recognition as well, Pete Seeger was issued the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest honor, in 1999.