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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Freedom Singers, 1963
Freedom Singers, 1963
- Bernice Johnson Reagon, "In Our Hands: Thoughts on Black Music," essay, Sing Out!, January 1976 (PDF)
- "We Shall Overcome," spiritual, ca. 1947 (with audio clip)

Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942-) grew up with music. She knew it could entertain, excite, and praise God. When she joined the Albany, Georgia, nonviolent movement, she learned it could do much more, as she describes in this brief memoir. Reagon was born and raised in southwest Georgia. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, religion and music played large roles in her upbringing. She studied music at Albany (GA) State University, where she became active in the civil rights movement. She has pursued a career as a teacher, composer, and performer, founding the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973.

One of the songs that brought Reagon to a new understanding of music was "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement. According to Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans, the roots of the song are obscure, but "its opening and closing phrases point back to the old spiritual 'No More Auction Block for Me.'"1 In Music and Social Movements, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison offer further details of its evolution. The nineteenth-century gospel song "I'll Be All Right" may be a precursor. Around 1901 Charles Tindley, a black minister from Philadelphia, wrote the spiritual "I'll Overcome Some Day." In 1940 black tobacco workers took up Tindley's song as a labor organizing anthem and changed its title to "We Will Overcome." Seven years later at the Highlander Center, a school for social activists in Tennessee, the title became "We Shall Overcome," and the song entered the musical arsenal of the civil rights movement. Eyerman and Jamison note that the singing of "We Shall Overcome" became a ritual at civil rights demonstrations, serving "to reunite and to remind participants of their place in a 'movement' and also to locate them within a long-standing tradition of struggle [and] protest." Often the song was sung in the African American call and response style with a leader proclaiming the words of a stanza, and the singers repeating them. Eyerman and Jamison emphasize that "We Shall Overcome" and songs like it "mobilize tradition": by invoking the past, such songs link the present to older beliefs and struggles and thereby infuse contemporary reality with historical and moral meaning.2 (9 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What effects did Reagon's participation in the civil rights movement have on her personally?
  2. Judging from Reagon's memoir, what roles did music play in the civil rights movement?
  3. According to Reagon, how did the jazz she encountered as the civil rights movement went north differ from the music of the movement in the South?
  4. How do these changes reflect changes in the movement itself?
  5. To whom is the "we" referring in "We Shall Overcome"?
  6. What is the "strategy" of the song? By what means will the singers overcome?
  7. What assumptions does the song make about those who are opposing the singers' efforts to overcome?
  8. How does the song reflect "the beloved community" of the SCLC brochure (see #2: Reasoning)?
  9. What traditions does the song mobilize?
  10. What qualities enabled the song to become the anthem of the civil rights movement?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

"In Our Hands": 3
"We Shall Overcome": 6
TOTAL 9 pages
Supplemental Sites
Bernice Johnson Reagon: Composer, Musician, Songtalker, website of B. J. Reagon

How to Think of Freedom Songs, WGBH interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon, 2006, in Eyes on the Prize (PBS)

Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon, Radical History Review, Spring 1997

"We Shall Overcome," lyrics and discussion from Philip Neil, Kansas State University

"We Shall Overcome," performed by Mahalia Jackson, audio clip and lyrics, from Strange Fruit (PBS)

"I'll Overcome Someday," lyrics and audio clip, from

"No More Auction Block for Me" ("Many Thousand Gone")

- Audio clip from Smithsonian Global Sound
- Lyrics from

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Bernice Johnson Reagon (second from left) and the Freedom Singers performing at the Café Luna, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1963 (other singers, left to right: Charles Neblett, Cordell Reagon, and Rutha Harris). Reproduced by permission of Bernice Johnson Reagon,

1 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed., (New York: Norton, 1997), 472.

2 Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2-4, 35, 42-43.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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