We Shall Overcome – A Tribute to the Ode to Freedom in America

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The discovery of the Americas, or otherwise the New World, was destined to merge most nationalities from the 15th century to the present day. The most bitter story, and also the one that by definition is linked to slavery and desired freedom, is that of the African slaves. The first known systematic slave trade in the United States came in 1618 when the slave ship São João Bautista began its arduous journey from Angola to Mexico [New York Times, 2019].

It is important to look at history thoroughly, to comprehend the times so that we, the free and modern people of the 21th century, can understand why slavery was legally normal, why the movements of the 1960s are perhaps the most significant milestone in the definition of freedom and why, in one of the most liberal continents with the most modernized constitution in the world, social racism and the flourish of underground groups such as Ku Klux Klan were allowed to develop.

On to liberty, Mountain Dreams


In the 15th century, with the palace-funded expedition of Christopher Columbus, the route of human history was set on a new trajectory, that of the extreme connection between master and slave, or West and Africa. The latter had received large waves of colonial Europeans who had settled in the coastal parts of this vast continent. The movement of people of African descent at that time was a common occurrence, although commercialized slavery was not yet known. Spain, by signing an “asiento”, a contract, established prematurely the movement of Africans slaves to the New World in the form of trade. People were exchanged for food, for textiles and other things that were clearly considered superior to them.

Soon, the supreme powers of Europe, envious of the expansionist domination, followed Spain and Portugal. England, the Netherlands, Denmark and France helped “sort out” the slaves, who – just as farmers sort out the types of wheat before grinding them – sorted out people by race and heritage. This dehumanized campaign of humiliating human pride, rationality and virtue led to the overseas enslavement of 12.5 million people of African descent [New York Times, 2019]

In 1618 the São João Bautista, a slave ship was heading from Angola to Mexico when during the voyage it was attacked by two English pirate ships. Men, women and children from the Kingdoms of Africa endured the horrific voyage leading to a life of slavery. The remaining people on the ship were no more than 20 according to John Rofle’s letter reporting in August 1619 that “About a latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr […] brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victuals” [The Washington Post, 2018]. The “20 and odd Negroes” were taken to the English colony of Virginia, where, after their transatlantic voyage, they would endure slavery for countless generations.

In 1662, the creation of a law in Virginia strengthened the use of enclaved laborers by establishing a basis of inheritance that the status of the child followed the status of the mother. This meant that enslaved women were bringing into the world generations of children of African descent, who were considered commodities by birth. Racial segregation was further entrenched when it was decided that no free African man could inherit wealth to his children [New York Times, 2019].

Wealth…as mentioned before. What do we mean by wealth when we associate it with these people? Money? Land? Homes? Probably not. It would be more appropriate to have another pair of shoes or heavy clothing for the winter. Wealth in the Western sense of the 17th century was better suited to colonists, who were considered free in relation to slaves, but in relation to the nobles of the state, servants. Beings without thought, without inherent virtues or empathy who, drunk on a few pounds and a few acres of land, managed to enslave entire cultures. What is power when it is seized by such a man? Uncontrolled, ruthless and utterly brutal and dehumanized.


The Declaration of Independence of United States of America, 1776

America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence remains one of the most liberal political documents in the world today. Viewed holistically, this is obviously true. But within America itself Thomas Jefferson, no matter how liberal he may seem to the public, is not the same towards the African tribes. The opening line of the Declaration declare that: We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; [Wikisource].

The Declaration does not extend thee rights to enslaved Africans in America, who in the 18th century came to constitute the most important labor force. Jefferson – a slave owner himself – rejected petitions condemning slavery as he came under intense pressure from other like-minded officials [The Guardians, 2019].

By the early 18th century, the population of enslaved Africans in the tobacco growing regions of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina was as high as 50% [The Guardians, 2019]. Only in 1708 Africans reached 12,000 in Virginia [Sage Journals, 1997]. This population growth created densely populated areas throughout the States, making the pathways for communication and messaging between Africans much easier than in the past. Subsequently, revolutionary views began to be chanted – an early idea of the desired freedom. This growth led to many administrative impasses.

The white slave owners, unable to count and control the rebels, reached the point where they considered it a good decision to finish the further importation of Africans from abroad. Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of ending imports into Virginia. But while history, while in 1776, wanted him to be an advocate for the general abolition of slavery, at present it seems that his concerns as a slave owner and plantation owner motivated him in this decision rather than any moral force.

The 22nd of August 1831 signified for the enslaved people of Virginia the beginning of a glorious history. Written in blood, a rebellion that marked freedom in a dehumanized regime. Nat Turner, a spiritual leader among Virginia’s enslaved Africans, along with six other slaved began the fervent effort for emancipation.

Starting on their own plantation, they killed the masters of the house and moved on to the rest of Southampton, killing a total of 55 white slave owners. Nat Turner’s bloody march pushed another 50-60 slaved into rebellion. The completion of his conception was stopped by a heavily armed white militia that forced the rebels to run away. The incidents that followed were at horrendous.

The militia with at least 3,000 armed militiamen chased the rebels, but they were already hiding in the swamps and forests of Southampton County. For several months Turner was still hiding in the woods, while many of his comrades were captured and murdered. When Turner was finally captured, he was trailed, convicted and then hanged after his body was skinned. Another 54 men were executed by the state for their involvement in the rebellion.

 The white slave owners, fearing a rising rebellion, terrorized the African-Americans by placing their comrades’ heads on stakes. The white mob crawled into the streets and murdered 300 African Americans who had not been involved in the rebellion. The governor of Virginia wanted to put an end to this vigilante justice, called for the true participants in the rebellion to be brought before the law and convicted in order to strengthen the supremacy of the law. Considering abolition of slavery at the same time, as rebellions of this kind were occurring in other states, Virginia, instead of taking the courageous and “honorable” step of abolition, further tightened the liberties of slaves in the hope of permanently ending further rebellions [Wood, Walbert]. Nat Turner is remembered by the whites as a barbarian, a savage, responsible for dozens of white deaths, a brutal murderer. Enslaved African Americans and their descendants remember him as a hero, a man who defied the danger of his time, a man who disregarded the established “legal” enslavement, looking only to freedom. As far as modern people are concerned, these two extreme and different views potentially stand. How we may feel about Nat Turner is simply a matter of thought.

Below is a poem in honor of Nat Turner by Timothy Thomas Fortune,
a political leader for African American rights, on November 22, 1884:

He stood erect, a man as proud
As ever to a tyrant bowed
Unwilling head or bend a knee,
and longer, while bending, to be free;
And o’er his ebon features came
a shadow – ’twas of manly shame –
Aye, shame that he should wear a chain
and feel his manhood writhed with pain,
doomed to a life of plodding toil,
shamefully tooted to the soil!

He stood erect; his eyes flashed fire;
His robust form convulsed with ire;
“I will be free! I will be free!”
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he.

Virginia’s bills were lit at night –
the slave had risen in his might;
And far and near Nat’s wail went forth,
to South and East, and West and North,
and strong men trembled in their power,
and weak men felt ’twas now their hour.

“I will be free! I will be free!
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he.
The tyrant’s arm was all too strong,
had swayed dominion all too long;

And so, the hero met his end
as all who fall as Freedom’s friend.

The blow he struck shook slavery’s throne;
His cause was just, e’en skeptics own;
And round his lowly grave soon swarmed
Freedom’s brave hosts for freedom arm’d.
That host was swollen by Nat’s kin
to fight for Freedom, Freedom win,
upon the soil that spurned his cry;
“I will be free, or I will die!”

Let tyrants quake, e’en in their power,
for sure will come the awful hour
when they must given an answer, why
heroes in chains should basely die,
instead of rushing to the field
and counting battle ere they yield.


Martin Luther King’s famous speech, in which in just three words he wove a sense of freedom and equality into a global scale of human struggle with these ideals, was a historic moment for America. On March 31, 1968, just four days before his assassination, Martin Luther King gave a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., inspired by an earlier sermon when he had recited parts of the hymn “We Shall Overcome” to the interfaith congregation of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. His speech is quoted here:

We Shall Overcome,
deep in my heart I do believe, We Shall Overcome!
Now I join hands often with students and others behind jail bars singing it. We Shall Overcome!
Sometimes we’ve had tears in our eyes when joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it. We Shall Overcome!
Lord before this victory is won, some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but We Shall Overcome!
Don’t worry about us, before the victory is won some of us will lose jobs, but We Shall Overcome!
Before the victory is won, even some will have to face physical death, but if physical death is the price that some must pay, to free their children from a permanent psychological death, then norhing shall be more redemptive, We Shall Overcome!
Before the victory is won, some will be misuberstood and called bad names and dismissed as rebel-rousers and agitators, but We Shall Overcome!
And I’ll tell you why,
We Shall Overcome because the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We Shall Overcome because Carlyle is right. No lie can live forever!
We Shall Overcome because William Collin Bryant is right. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows, keeping watch above his own!
We Shall Overcome because the Bible is right! “You shall reap what you sow!”
We Shall Overcome!
Deep in my heart, I do believe We Shall Overcome!
And this with this faith, we will go out and adjourn the counsels of despair, and bring new light into the dark chambers of pesimism, and we will be able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. And this will be a great America! We will be the participants in making it so!
And so, as I leave you this evening I say, walk together children! Don’t you get weary!

Martin Luther King’s speech


On September 2, 1957, Martin Luther King visited the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. In his speech on the school’s 25th anniversary, Pete Seeger sang a chant with the school children. Later that day, King found himself humming the song, saying “There’s something in that song that haunts you”.

The song may have its roots in two European songs of the 1700s, “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners” and “Sanctissima”. U.S. Africans mixed similar melodies in the songs “I’ll be all right” and “No more auction block for me”. Later in 1900 a gospel “I’ll Overcome Someday” became the final arrangement. “We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the movement and marked the much-desired freedom for all enslaved peoples of the world.

Over time, the song has gained international fame and is heard in demonstrations and marches for freedom. It has been sung by protesters in China, Northern Ireland, South Korea, Lebanon and parts of Eastern Europe. In India, it is known as “Hum Honge Kaamyaab”, a song known by heart by almost all school children.

We Shall Overcome – Peter Seeger, Berlin 1967

We Shall Overcome – Joan Baez 1965


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