(NOTE: During Lent our adult “Discovery Hour” class was based on the book Were You There: Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals, by Luke A. Powery which was made up of short but powerful devotions based on 40 different African American Spirituals. This post builds on the reflection on one of the best known Spirituals, “We Shall Overcome.” )
You may think of “We Shall Overcome” as the classic anthem of the Civil Rights movement, and perhaps it’s been sung on the streets and protest rallies more often than in church. But the lyrical roots of this song go back to a hymn called “I’ll Overcome One Day,” published in 1900 by Methodist Episcopal minister Charles Albert Tindley, based on the Galatians 6:9, “Let us not be weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” The melodic roots go even further back to the moving slave song, “No More Auction Block.” (Click HERE to listen to this powerful rendition by Martha Redbone.) First and foremost “We Shall Overcome” is a song of faith, as Luke Powery suggests in this reflection:
“What makes an impression on my heart when engaging the Spirituals is their dogged faith in God. And from that deep sense of faith, hope rises. The Lenten journey has been long and it can even be exhausting. There have been challenges. There have been trials. There have been ups and downs. Valleys, lonesome valleys, dangerous valleys, vicious valleys. Yet despite the fright of the dark nights of the soul, somehow, someday, we can say, “We shall overcome.” We shall have peace. We are not afraid. Why? I believe there are two reasons.
“First, there is a we not me. We are not alone on this journey. We have companionship and a community on the way. I find it interesting that it’s not “I” shall overcome but “we” shall overcome. I can’t really overcome with you overcoming. It is a collective victory. Second, and most important, we don’t have to be afraid because “God is on our side.” The presence of God brings assurance and hope that we shall overcome someday. This wasn’t new for the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States of the 1960s; this faith was rooted in the deep spirituality of the enslaved and continues to breathe today. Remember, the life of faith includes “we,” and the “we” is how God wants it to be on the journey. Don’t forget those who helped you overcome and those who need you to help them overcome. And most of all, don’t forget the God who brings us all out in victory!”
As you listen to the Morehouse College Glee Club sing “We Shall Overcome,” think about who is the “we” in your overcoming. Then include them in this Prayer for the Day from Luke Powery’s devotional:
God, lead us to be on your side so that we shall overcome, not just someday, but every day. Amen.