We Shall Overcome

It is a spring evening in West Florida. Humid. The sun is low. I am watching three old men strum guitars and sing “We Shall Overcome” on their front porch. They are singing through a small amplification system for the neighborhood.

“We shall overcome, some day…”

It is a tense world we live in right now, filled with protests, riots, flames, and surgical masks. So while these men play and sing, I close my eyes.

The old men are completely tone deaf. But they make up for it with sincerity.

They are ex-hippies with longish hair and sandals. And they have drawn a small crowd. We are all social-distancing, listening to their impromptu jam session.

An older couple sits in a driveway across the street. A young family sits on a blanket in their front yard. Kids linger on bikes, eating popsicles.

“We shall overcome,
“We shall overcome, some day…”

Two older ladies on a porch swing sip from wine glasses. They wear medical masks. One woman spills wine all over her shirt. She laughs, hiccups, and keeps on sipping.

Baby Boomers.

The guitarist speaks over the microphone: “I remember going to civil rights marches with my dad. My dad was a Methodist minister. We stood arm-in-arm with people of all colors in Birmingham, we would sing this song.”

They sing again:

“We shall overcome,
“We shall overcome, some day…”

The song itself has been used by billions all over the world. It was once invoked upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, by a crowd of 300,000. Martin Luther King Jr. recited it in his final sermon, only hours before he was shot.

But this song is a lot older than that. And I wonder whether anyone listening tonight knows how old this song truly is. I happen to know.

To be fair, the only reason I know the history of this song is because I had to write a college paper about it once.

Well, technically, if we’re splitting hairs, my wife wrote the paper and I just put my name on it.

I was an adult in community college. The assignment was to write on ‘60s protest music. So I asked my wife to help me. She agreed, but only if—this is true—I would pay her $200. In most states, this is called extortion.

What I learned was that “We Shall Overcome” has a few versions. But it officially dates back to 1900. An African American minister, Charles Albert Tindley, wrote a tune named “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which became the basis for the song.

You might not know Charles Tindley, but I’ll bet you know his music. Especially if your mother forced you to attend church like mine did. He wrote, “Take your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There,” and “We’ll Understand it Better By and By.”

Charles was the son of a slave, born in Maryland, before the end of the Civil War. He was raised in unkind world.

He was a large man, with hands like bear claws, wide shoulders, and a concrete jaw. And he was completely self-educated. From childhood, he began piecing together his own education like a mismatched jigsaw puzzle. He taught himself to read, and how to compose music.

As a young man, he wanted to learn Hebrew, so he could translate biblical manuscripts. He went to a local synagogue and begged the old men to teach him. Soon, Charles was reading Hebrew better than the rabbis. Then, just for the heck of it, he learned Greek, too.

Later in life, he got a job working as a janitor at a church on Bainbridge Street, in Philadelphia. It was an unpaid position, so he took another part-time gig, carrying bricks.

Eventually, he applied for ordination. A lot of people said this was a silly idea, since Charles was a manual laborer with no formal education. Still, the Methodist Episcopal church finally agreed to let him take the entrance exam. His test scores were off the charts.

After he was ordained, his life took off like a steam engine. He cared for orphans, fed the starving, and helped the destitute along the Eastern Seaboard. Until one day he got a letter in the mail.

The church on Bainbridge Street—where he’d once been janitor—asked Charles to be their preacher. He didn’t even have to think about it. He took his wife by the hand, whisked her back to Philadelphia, and that was that.

In a matter of years, the small congregation of 103 exploded into 10,000. It became one of the largest multi-racial Methodist congregations on the East Coast.

They say the crowds were something else, often overflowing into the chilly streets of Philadelphia, huddling together, clustering on sidewalks, just to hear the giant man preach, sing, and speak about overcoming.

On the day of his funeral, there were so many people gathered in attendance that the building’s foundation almost cracked.

Today, Tindley’s church still holds regular services. If you’re ever in the area, stop by. You can’t miss it. It’s the building that’s named after him.

The old ex-hippies finish their musical set. We applaud. They take a bow. I look into the sky. The sun is setting and the crickets are out.

I wonder if Charles can see us from where he is. I wonder if the humble man has been listening to us sing. We are a bunch of average people in an ordinary American neighborhood, singing words he wrote 120 years ago. Because in spite of our faults, we believe them.

If he can’t hear us tonight. He will. Some day.


  1. Christina - June 4, 2020 6:55 am

    Thank you Sean! I used to live in Philly for years but didn’t know this piece of history and treasure. Yes, WE SHALL OVERCOME with LOVE and when are you playing your rendition?

  2. Sandi. - June 4, 2020 7:20 am

    Hi Sean, you definitely garnered my interest and curiosity with this wonderful human interest story, so I Googled Rev. Dr. Charles A. Tindley and found out, among other tidbits, that he also wrote the song, “Stand By Me” which is sometimes sung at weddings!

  3. Debbie Phillips Hughett - June 4, 2020 8:10 am


  4. Marjean - June 4, 2020 10:54 am

    Loved this! I am a writer in Birmingham also and enjoyed your story of the South as well as the beautiful bio of Tindley.

  5. Keloth Anne - June 4, 2020 12:20 pm

    Such a timely post ♥️

  6. Marc Beaver - June 4, 2020 1:11 pm

    Proud of you, Sean, for this song interpretation. Great respect shown for Tindley and the power of these old songs.

  7. Deborah Blount - June 4, 2020 1:18 pm


  8. Bkr - June 4, 2020 1:34 pm

    Sean -you knocked it out of the park with this one! I never Knew the history of the song. Thank you!

  9. Connie Ryland - June 4, 2020 1:37 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  10. Joanne Reilly - June 4, 2020 2:05 pm

    Makes my heart sing!! Thank you for wonderful column. Lifts my spirits and brings me joy.

  11. Farris - June 4, 2020 2:27 pm

    Beautiful story , incredible man ! Prayers for our country !

  12. sandra mattucci - June 4, 2020 2:48 pm

    I Can’t Breathe…

    As I write these three words,
    I keep hearing the sounds of
    the hammer driving three
    nails into the flesh of an
    innocent man.

    I hang my head—my lament so raw.
    Unraveling the words, my white, feminine flesh
    spills black ink from a pen.
    I do not know how to
    frame the cry within me, choking me.
    I must write, but what?

    I sought the words of a Dreamer…

    “…Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
    Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain Tennessee.
    Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
    From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

    And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it
    ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city,
    we will be able to speed up that day when ALL of God’s children, black
    and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to
    join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

    Free at last! Free at last!

    Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

    ~~~Martin Luther King, Jr.
    28th August 1963

    I wish to sing, but my tears flood my
    wind pipe…I’m choking.
    Mr. Floyd, the simplicity of my words
    are an attempt to BREATHE for you.

    Was this your life’s purpose…to ignite a flame?
    Your purpose so much more!
    Across the country, from Minneapolis, to Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Illinois, Utah and—
    cries are heard.

    Systemic shifts are caving in
    amidst a pandemic.
    Lives are being lost.
    The Earth is quaking.

    Will we all perish in our inability
    to see we’re all FREE…we are all created equal?

    God Almighty, how you weep now with us.

    You breathed life into the dust of this landscape, brown soils, creating humankind…
    my heart is not able to reckon what we are
    living in NOW
    this was/is not a part of your Design.

    Come to our assistance—
    Come, if ONLY, to embrace our sorrows.
    Let us sit for a while in these ashes.
    Let us bathe in the folly of all
    our unknowing.

    May the loss of George Floyd’s life simply not be a moment we look back upon and ‘recall’.

    Let freedom ring
    and ring
    and ring
    until God Almighty we are all Free at last.

    I pray my ‘eyes’ behold the Dream Come True
    before I take my last breath.

    Forgive me while I still breathe.
    I cannot keep silent.

    Joining You Sean in WORD…We Shall Overcome…Let it RING!!!

  13. Patricia Gibson - June 4, 2020 3:03 pm


  14. Joy DeBusk - June 4, 2020 3:12 pm

    Thank you for a much needed reminder of who we should aspire to be and a history lesson of a man the world certainly benefitted from. We should all know his name..I’m glad I do now.

  15. Nan - June 4, 2020 3:26 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for all that I learn from you. Pretty sure I’m old enough to be your mom or maybe grandma, but we are never too old to learn something new each day.

  16. Roni - June 4, 2020 3:43 pm

    Someday may not be today or it may not come when we are not on this side of the earth bout it will come… someday

  17. Christine Washburn - June 4, 2020 4:29 pm

    Thank you for this lesson, he definitely was an amazing man.

  18. Linda Moon - June 4, 2020 4:44 pm

    In the sixties and seventies there was tension in our world. I experienced some of it first-hand…..on the side of what I sincerely believed was right. The family and influences I blessedly had in that time raised me well, so I had no need to join up with the hippies. Sons of slaves and even daughters of forward-thinking mothers like mine, overcome. In this world there is always trouble, but I take heart after all these years because of the One who told us to do so. Charles Tindley followed Him and gave us a song. Thank you, Sean, for giving us his story!

  19. Barbara - June 4, 2020 4:46 pm

    Prayers that we may overcome someday.

  20. Jess Rawls - June 4, 2020 5:13 pm

    That was so interesting about Charles Tindley that I ordered a book off ebay because I want to read more about him. He sounds fascinating….thanks, Sean.

  21. Donia - June 4, 2020 5:51 pm

    How wonderful to learn about Charles Tindley – what an amazing man! I appreciate his contribution to Christianity and admire him for accomplishing so much in his lifetime. I loved his hymns when they were sung in our churches. Thank you for making known this important history.

  22. Dru Brown - June 4, 2020 6:33 pm

    Great story! Always loved the song.

  23. catladymac - June 4, 2020 7:14 pm

    And we wonder if Charles (And Abe. And Martin.) saw the armed soldiers standing solid on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the other night.

  24. Lori Whittaker - June 4, 2020 7:19 pm

    Thank you.

  25. Sandra - June 4, 2020 8:15 pm

    Yes,indeed. Keep writing, please.

  26. Martha - June 4, 2020 9:17 pm

    We all have things we must overcome.

  27. Heather Miller - June 5, 2020 1:07 am

    Thank you for telling about this lovely man. He would be shocked and dismayed, if he were here today. I love your writings, Sean, you either challenge me to think, or make me laugh out loud, sometimes cry.

  28. Tammy S. - June 5, 2020 8:19 pm

    Ready for “some day.”

  29. mike - June 5, 2020 8:41 pm

    Thanks, Sean. Great article. I have read the background of so many great hymns across the years. I have discovered that if you know the history, what the author was going through and wanting to say, you will have a great appreciation for the song. As a retired Methodist pastor, I have long appreciated the words of Charles Wesley and remember so many times being told by older pastors, “you can preach the words of Wesley’s hymns. They are all sound Biblical words.”

  30. Debbie Taylor - June 6, 2020 2:17 pm

    What an extraordinary story, thank you for sharing!

  31. Judy Riley - June 9, 2020 5:44 pm

    Absolutely loved this history lesson!! Bless Rev. Tindley!


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