‘We Shall Overcome’: How the civil rights anthem traces back to the Queen City

Updated: Feb. 23, 2020 at 10:35 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The undisputed anthem of the civil rights movement has its roots in the Queen City, though it took more than 50 years for the world to recognize it.

“We Shall Overcome” is a powerful work of poetry, a gospel hymn that’s left its mark on American culture. But the question of who wrote it gets complicated fast.

Many once believed it to be the work of renowned folk singer Pete Seegar, who was one of five artists to copyright the song — without author credit — in 1960.

“Pete Seegar, of course, was probably the best-known folk singer we’ve had in American History,” Kevin Grace, head of archived

Seeger reportedly never claimed to write the song. He was nonetheless credited with bringing it forward into wider society after hearing black tobacco workers singing it during a strike in the 1940′s.

But music experts believe the song doesn’t belong to Seeger at all. They trace it to a woman named Louise Shropshire, a black woman who lived in Mt. Auburn.

Shropshire was musical director at the Greater New Life Baptist Church in Cincinnati.

“I’ll overcome,

I’ll overcome,

I overcome someday

If my Jesus wills,

I do believe,

I’ll overcome someday.”

These are the words of “If my Jesus Wills,” published by Shropshire in 1942 and copyrighted in 1954. Compare them to the lyrics of “We Shall Overcome”:

“We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

shall overcome, someday.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe

We shall overcome, someday.”

Shropshire’s song came out first, but it was Seeger who got worldwide fame, as it was his song that made the rounds at protests throughout the civil rights movement, becoming its signature melody and its inspiration.

Indeed, the Library of Congress describes "We Shall Overcome" as "the most powerful song of the 20th century.”

Brian Shropshire-Ennix is Louise Shropshire’s grandson.

“I think what happened was, they tried to change the concept of the song without changing the concept of the song,” Shropshire-Ennix mused. “So they changed the words, which, the words still had the same meaning as the first words, which were taken out.”

The question is, how? — how did a Shropshire’s work get so baldly aped and repackaged, especially when she figured so large in the civil rights movement?

The following anecdote comes from a book written in 2012 by Grammy-award winning music producer — and friend of the Shropshire family — Isaias Gamboa. The book is titled "We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue.”

According to a Cincinnati Enquirer article on the book, during a speaking tour leading up to the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stayed overnight in Cincinnati at the Shropshire home. Following dinner, Louise reportedly sat down at her piano and sang songs, including “If My Jesus Wills."

At one point, Gamboa says, King reportedly asked her, for the sake of the movement, if he could change the words from “I’ll overcome” to “We’ll overcome." Her reported response: “I don’t mind.”

Perhaps Shropshire reacted to Seeger’s copyright claim with the same modesty: “I don’t mind.”

UC’s Grace argues that’s close to the truth. He also argues there’s a reason for it.

“She had a very low profile,” Grace said of Shropshire. “Let’s be honest, she was a black woman, and who was paying attention to a black woman in the 1950’s and 60’s?”

Not many, he implies.

But times changed, and eventually, Gamboa took up Shropshire’s cause. It was the purpose of his 2012 book, after all, to argue against the copyright claims — and the spurious appropriations — of artists like Seeger.

The Enquirer wrote: "Gamboa had a musical analysis conducted, which found that ‘If My Jesus Wills’ was likely the work from which ‘We Shall Overcome’ evolved. A legal analysis agreed with that finding. After a lengthy court battle, a judge placed the song into the public domain.”

Shropshire passed away in 1993. Still, two decades after her death — and nearly 80 years after she wrote 'If My Jesus Wills" — she’s finally getting credit for the song that changed the country.

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