Monday, January 16, 2017

The "We Shall Overcome" Civil Rights Song & Its Linked Arms/ Hands Held Stance

Edited by Azizi Powell

Revised November 13, 2017

This pancocojams post provides commentary about and examples of the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome". Particular attention is given to the tradition of singing "We Shall Overcome" while linking arms (crossing arms) and holding hands with the person on either side, and swaying back and forth.

The Addendum to this post showcases a video that provides some historical information about the song "We Shall Overcome" and some relatively recent information about the effort to make that song part of the public domain.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, inspirational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who composed "We Shall Overcome" and thanks to those who popularized that song. Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and all those who are featured in the videos that are included in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.
I was inspired to revisit this topic because the icon for Google Search January 16, 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a drawing of a diverse group of people linking arms (crossing arms) and, presumably singing "We Shall Overcome". Thanks to Google Search for honoring this tradition.

For more lyrics and video examples of civil rights songs, visit my Civil Rights Song blog

[The first part of this comment was previously published in this pancocojams post:]

In 2013 I published a pancocojams post on the Gospel song "I'll Overcome Someday" and the Civil Rights song "We Shall Overcome" Click "

Unlike that previous post, most of the videos in this post feature examples of "We Shall Overcome" in which the singers either lock arms and sway from side to side while singing this song, or hold hands and stand still or sway from side to side while singing this song. This has become the signature way that "We Shall Overcome" is sung. To my knowledge, no other protest song or civil rights song has this or any other signature movement style.

It's possible that the linked arm (crossed arm) style of singing "We Shall Overcome" came from the verse "We'll walk hand in hand". Or that locked arm style may be a way of expressing the unity that the people feel when they are singing this song. Locking arms also shows the resolve of the protesters. Such a stance would also have made it more difficult for the police to arrest individuals, although the police would have eventually succeeded in separating people from those they had locked arms with.

I'm interested in reading your views about why (and when) this custom started and continues of singing "We Shall Overcome" this way.
Unfortunately, I haven't received any feedback yet about this linked arm/hand held/body swaying from side to side tradition. But it occurs to me that the children's chant "Hey Hey Get Out Of The Way" [I just got back to the USA]* is an example of people linking arms together and chanting- if not singing. That chant is associated with "military brats", but was (and probably still is) chanted by people with no military parents. The chanters lock arms together and walk down the sidewalk, forcing people coming towards them to move out of their way. Like the locked arms of the civil rights protesters who sung "We Shall Overcome", the locked arms of the "Hey Hey Get Out Of The Way" chanters made it less likely that their group would be broken apart.

*Click for a pancocojams post on "Hey Hey Get Out Of The Way"
Are there other songs that are sung while linking arms and holding the hands of people on either side (with or without swaying back and forth to the music?)

In searching for examples of other songs in which singers use this stance, I came across this article Celtics players cross arms, hold hands during national anthem, Steve Bulpett Tuesday, October 04, 2016
"AMHERST — The Celtics’ players and coaches crossed their arms and held hands with those on either side during the singing of the national anthem prior to Tuesday night’s preseason opener against Philadelphia.

The team action was part of the growing response by athletes to shed light on social inequities that have divided many in the country. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick spurred the displays when he refused to stand for the anthem.

The move by the Celts as they stood from one side of the court to the other across the free throw line was designed to make a statement.

“That we need change in this world,” said Celt forward Jae Crowder. “We need to do it together. Just not one individual; it’s got to be a team type deal, a unity, a togetherness. Whatever we decide our message to be, it has to be about being together as one and coming together as one.”...

“What do we want to portray?” he [Crowder] said. “What do we want our message to be? That’s what we had talked about, and how can we go about doing it in a positive way? That’s all we talked about.

“We just want to make sure everybody’s on the same page and everybody [can] speak on their belief. We don’t want anybody to feel like they’re doing something they don’t want to do or talk about something they don’t want to talk about. So we just wanted to make sure everybody’s on the same page in those conversations that we had.”

Stevens certainly appreciated the approach.

“I think one of the great things about being a part of a team is you all come from different backgrounds and you learn about each other and you all come together for the common cause,” said the coach. “And that’s why we all love sports, right? We can all rally around that common cause and we can rally around teams. But I think when you really get into deep, impactful stuff, those are special conversations and sometimes those are uncomfortable and sometimes there can be tension around those, but I think that’s the beautiful part about our group, is that they all appreciate one another, really support one another. I think they’re very much into what the teams that I’ve seen thus far, in talking about togetherness and continued progress.”
A photograph of the Celtic basketball players standing with linked arms/hand held stance is included with this article. But, unfortunately, can't find any video.)

I added italics to highlight that the linked arms/hand held stance appears to be associated with unity and togetherness. However, I think that that stance also represents protest and I think it's significant that that stance was used while singing a song other than "We Shall Overcome".

If you know of other contemporary examples of this linked arms/hands held stance being used while singing "We Shall Overcome", "The [USA] National Anthem" or other songs, please share them in the comment section below. Thanks!

Example #1: Obama at Ebenezer - We Shall Overcome

Stand with Obama Uploaded on Jan 20, 2008

This is the conclusion of Obama's speech at the church on Martin Luther King on King's Birthday in 2008, when the congregation sings "We Shall Overcome."

Example #2: We Shall Overcome: A SONG THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

HMH Books Uploaded on Dec 11, 2009
"We Shall Overcome" isn't a complicated piece of music. The first verse has only twenty-two words, most of them repeated. The melody is straightforward. The chords are basic. Yet the song has had a profound effect on people throughout the United States--and the world.

In clear, accessible language Stuart Stotts explores the roots of the tune and the lyrics in traditional African music and Christian hymns. He demonstrates the key role "We Shall Overcome" played in the civil rights, labor, and anti-war movements in America. And he traces the song's transformation into an international anthem. With its dramatic stories and memorable quotes, this saga of a famous piece of music offers a unique way of looking at social history.

Author's note, bibliography, source notes, index.

We Shall Overcome
Stuart Stotts; Terrance Cummings...
Publication Date: 01/18/2010...

Age Range: 8-12 years
At .57 in this video there is a photograph of diverse group of protestors with the crossed arm stance
The narrator says "“In 1960 “We Shall Overcome” spread like a tidal wave throughout the United States as the anthem for the civil rights movement.”

At 1:22 in this video there is a photograph of President Obama, Congressmen John Lewis, and others having their arms linked and holding hands while singing ["We Shall Overcome" ?]

Example #3: Congressional Leaders Sing 'We Shall Overcome'

yazakchattiest Published on Jun 25, 2014
Media Research Center
CNS News
According to another video, this event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Fast forward two more years, on June 22, 2016 members of the United States Democratic Congressional delegation held a sit in on the House floor and sung "We Shall Overcome". The video isn't clear and I can't tell if they linked arms while singing that song.

Example #4: 'We Shall Overcome' rings out at Charleston vigil

embedding not permitted

AFP news agency ,Published on Jun 20, 2015

The solemn verses of "We Shall Overcome" rings out in a college basketball arena at a vigil for the nine victims of a massacre at a historic African-American church.
This is an integrated group of people. Everyone locks arms with the people next to them and sways from side to side while singing "We Shall Overcome".

I added this video for the history that it shares.
'We Shall Overcome' At The Center Of A Public Domain Dispute – Newsy

Newsy Published on Apr 14, 2016

The Library of Congress calls "We Shall Overcome" "the most powerful song of the 20th century," and now one group is claiming that the song should be owned by everyone.

"Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday," Joan Baez sings.
The Library of Congress calls "We Shall Overcome" "the most powerful song of the 20th century," and now one group is claiming that the song should be owned by everyone.

The We Shall Overcome Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging the copyright of the song that's in the title of the organization, saying the song is "dedicated to public use and in the public domain."

Ludlow Music Inc., an imprint of The Richmond Organization, claims to have registered that copyright in 1960. But the lawsuit asserts it was never really Ludlow Music's to begin with.

"We Shall Overcome" contains lyrics similar to an African-American spiritual. One of the first printed versions of the song appeared in the United Mine Workers Journal in 1909.

That was later corroborated by folk singer Pete Seeger.
"It said we started every meeting with a prayer and singing that good ol' song, 'We Will Overcome,'" Seeger said in an interview with Pacifica Radio.

Seeger had also published the song in a newsletter intended to "create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people."

Some are comparing this lawsuit to another one centered on another popular song. Interestingly enough, the lawyers who worked to get "Happy Birthday" in the public domain are doing the same with "We Shall Overcome."
Along with the song being placed in the public domain, the "We Shall Overcome" lawsuit asks for Ludlow Music to return licensing fees it has collected from the song — which could be in the millions."..

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