Stories that Surprise and Inspire
The song “We Shall Overcome” was an important part of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It gave hope and courage to thousands of blacks and whites who protested peacefully against unfair treatment of African Americans. The song is easy to sing, but its words carry a powerful message. Here’s its main verse:
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Often protestors faced hostile crowds, were arrested, or even beaten up when they took part in nonviolent demonstrations that called for all Americans—no matter their skin color—to have the same right to vote and be treated fairly in restaurants, stores, businesses, schools, buses, trains—and even amusement parks.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a main leader of the civil rights movement, urged demonstrators not to fight back, no matter how badly they were treated. This song helped them do that. Holding hands and joining their voices in “We Shall Overcome” during demonstrations—or in jail—helped them feel they weren’t alone and that despite the danger, their efforts would lead to a better America.
The protests did indeed lead to new laws being passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Law makes it illegal for any business that serves the public to discriminate against people because of race, religion, gender, or national origin. The 1965 Voting Rights Law outlaws rules that make it hard for blacks to vote.
News about these nonviolent protestors—and their song—spread around the world. Before long, people protesting for fair treatment in other countries began singing “We Shall Overcome” in their own languages. It has been sung by demonstrators in such varied countries as India, Czechoslovakia, Romania, China, and Britain.
While I was doing research for a book on civil rights, a man told me how the song helped him when he was surrounded by a hostile mob that hurled insults (and some rocks) during a 1963 demonstration at an amusement park that refused to let in blacks. When police arrived to arrest the protestors (not the stone thrower), the demonstrators held hands and sang the song as they walked through the mob to the police van. Their voices were shaky as they sang the verse “We are not afraid,” because they were very afraid, but the song gave them the courage to keep going.
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Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the tale of the nearly ten years of protests that were needed to finally end segregation at an amusement park, placing the story of the park—and its merry-go-round—within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole. For more information on the book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "'We Shall Overcome': The Power of a Song." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
When seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a bus after work in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, she had no idea she was about to make history.
At that time, Montgomery buses were strictly segregated. According to city law, whites had the right to the first few rows of seats. Under a long-standing custom, blacks had to give up their seats as additional whites boarded. So when that happened, the driver ordered Parks and three other blacks to move further back. The other three did. Parks didn’t. The driver repeated his order. Again Parks refused. She was arrested.
Years later, a legend grew up that she was tired from a long day on her feet. But as she explained, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Black leaders, who had long shared her frustration, sensed an opportunity. They quickly formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and selected a young minister who had just moved to Montgomery as leader. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under his leadership, Montgomery blacks ordered a boycott of the bus system. They used many methods of alternate transportation, sometimes walking for an hour or even more. Despite whites’ burning of several churches and an explosion that destroyed Dr. King’s home, they persisted: day after day, week after week, month after month. Since blacks formed about 75 percent of the normal ridership, the loss of their fares began crippling the system. Finally, on December 20 the following year Montgomery repealed the law requiring segregated buses. The victory also catapulted Dr. King to national prominence.
Parks didn’t fare so well. She was fired from her job and received numerous death threats. She and her husband moved to Detroit.
Honors began pouring in. In 2000, Time magazine named Rosa Parks—often called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”—as one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
Parks had another honor that year. In 1994, the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan had announced a plan to clean up a portion of Highway I-55 near St. Louis, Missouri under the federal Adopt-a-Highway program. That meant signs would be posted to acknowledge the Klan’s “public service.” The Missouri Department of Transportation objected, but a series of court cases concluding in 2000 deemed the objection as unconstitutional. The state quickly responded by naming that portion of I-55 the Rosa Parks Freeway. The Klan never did clean it up.
On the morning of December 1, 1955, hardly anyone in Rosa Parks s home town of Montgomery, Alabama had heard of her. By the time that night fell, she was on her way to becoming a household word all over the United States. Jim Whiting tells the story in his book What's So Great About Rosa Parks? For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 26 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and looked out at a sea of faces reaching as far as the eye could see. More than 200,000 people had gathered there to take part in one of the largest protest rallies in United States history: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Standing there that day, Dr. King delivered a stirring speech: his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a speech that has been voted the best political speech given in the United States during the 20th century, according to a group of 137 experts on speechmaking who were asked to pick the century’s 100 top speeches.
In this speech, Dr. King called for an end to segregation and discrimination, which had led to so many people being treated unfairly just because of the color of their skin. He spoke of his dream that one day the nation would live up to the idea set forth in its Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal.” He spoke also of his dream that one day black children and white children would treat each other as sisters and brothers.
Today, visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington can stand on the very spot where Dr. King stood more than fifty years ago to deliver his famous speech. The location is marked by these words that have been chiseled into a stone landing about eighteen steps down from the top:
I HAVE A DREAM
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM
AUGUST 28, 1963
Carving these words into the stone step came about because of a tourist from Kentucky who visited the Lincoln Memorial in 1997 and wondered why there wasn’t a sign to let people know where Dr. King had stood. This visitor wrote to his representative in Congress, who agreed that marking the spot was a good idea and had Congress passed a law to allow that to happen. To figure out exactly where Dr. King stood, officials at the National Park Service, which manages the Lincoln Memorial, carefully studied photos and video that had been taken during the speech. Then, in 2003, they arranged for a local stone cutter to carve the words into the step where they decided Dr. King had stood.
You have to look closely to find those words in the stone. They’re not highlighted in a bright color. But when you find them, you can stand up on that step and look out as Dr. King did, and try to imagine how he must have felt as he shared his hopes and dreams for his country with that huge crowd..
Click here to read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
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Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells of another civil rights milestone that took place on August 28, 1963—the day Dr. King gave his famous speech. That same day, about forty miles away from the Lincoln Memorial, a once-segregated amusement park at last dropped segregation, and a very young girl took a very special ride on a merry-go-round.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Standing with Doctor King." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12
01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/