The song “We shall overcome” had been around in American culture for centuries. But Guy Carawan, a folk singer, turned into what it is now, an iconic protest song. He died last week.
It had been a little-known folk song, until April 15, 1960, when Carawan, a white, sang it before a group of African American students in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The New York Times said he turned it into “the ‘Marseillaise’ of the integration movement,”, in a nod to the French Revolution song that later became France’s national anthem.
The song is now sung the world over, at protests and at religious congregations. It is “Hum honge kamyaab” in Hindi.
Carawan was born in 1927 to an asbestos contractor and his poet wife. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he went to Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Barack Obama went to the same college over a century later.
The song, whose antecedents are traced to the 18th century, was put together in the present shape by Carawan, Pete Seeger, Zilphia Horton and Frank Hamilton in the 1950s.