A 2012 book traces the origin of the civil rights anthem to Cincinnati hymn writer Louise Shropshire.
We Shall Overcome is the inspirational anthem sung at the 1963 March on Washington and throughout the civil rights movement.
It's a spiritual that has long since transcended race to be sung around the world by those searching for faith and courage in the face of injustice.
It's a little-known footnote of history that this worldwide anthem of the oppressed had its genesis in Cincinnati in the work of a prolific hymn writer and choir director by the name of Louise Shropshire.
The Cincinnati birth of the song is documented in a 2012 book called We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil's Tongue, by Isaias Gamboa, a Grammy-award winning music producer. Gamboa spent four years excavating the origins of the song after hearing the story from his friend and musical colleague, Robert Goins Shropshire, the grandson of Louise.s a little-known footnote of history that this worldwide anthem of the oppressed had its genesis in Cincinnati in the work of a prolific hymn writer and choir director by the name of Louise Shropshire.
Louise's family moved to Cincinnati in 1917 in search of a better life than they had in Alabama, where they subsisted as rural sharecroppers.
She had a gift for music and composed hymns, including one she called If My Jesus Wills, which she wrote sometime between 1932 and 1942. Its lyrics include these words: "I will overcome, I will overcome, I will overcome someday. If my Jesus wills, I do believe, I will overcome someday." The stanza is very close to the lyrics of We Shall Overcome: "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome some day, Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day."
She wrote many hymns as a member of her Baptist church and in 1935, she was discovered by Rev. Thomas Dorsey at the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which was held in Cincinnati that year.
That began a 30-year friendship with Dorsey, considered by some to be the father of gospel music.
She performed "If My Jesus Wills" at gospel conventions for years and distributed hundreds of copies of the song to choir directors across the country. That is likely how Pete Seeger and others came to hear it.
Seeger, the famous folk singer who was a leading voice of the '60s civil rights movement, said in a 2006 interview with the Enquirer, "Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original."
He then went on to sing what he called the original lyrics, which were from Shropshire's hymn.
The book sheds new light on a song whose origins have been a matter of debate for some time. Popular lore had the song evolving from a hymn called I'll Overcome Someday by the Rev. Charles A. Tindley of Philadelphia.
However, Gamboa's research found that Tindley's song is in a different time signature and uses a different musical scale, making it unlikely that his song was the true origin.
"We Shall Overcome" is registered as a derivative work with no known author.
It was copyrighted without author credit in 1960 by five performers, including Seeger. Through his Los Angeles music industry connections, 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.
Gamboa's book is harsh on Seeger and others who adapted songs they heard in churches, on chain gangs and on picket lines in the South and elsewhere. But the origins of much of American folk music can be difficult to authoritatively trace and much was passed on as oral tradition.
Louise Shropshire may not have enriched herself through her music, but she was wealthy – "black royalty," Gamboa says – thanks to her husband's business. At age 16, she married 29-year-old Robert Shropshire, who had started a bail-bonds business in Cincinnati. Through Prohibition and even the Great Depression, the business thrived and made the Shropshires well-off. The business still exists today, near the Hamilton County Courthouse.
According to the book, in 1963, on a speaking tour leading up to the March on Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed overnight in Cincinnati at the Shropshire home, accompanied by three FBI agents for security. After dinner, Louise sat down at her piano and sang songs, including If My Jesus Wills, Gamboa writes. King asked her if he could change the words from "I'll overcome" to "We'll overcome," "for the movement." Her response: "I don't mind."
Next month, Cincinnati City Council Member Charlie Winburn plans to introduce a resolution recognizing Shropshire for her role in the civil rights movement.