We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song

It only takes a few words to create change.  It only takes a few people to believe that change is possible.  And when those people sing out, they can change the world.  “We Shall Overcome” is one of their songs.

This book tells the story of this anthem of the civil rights movement.  The story begins with the song’s roots in America’s era of slavery, moves through Emancipation and the Jim Crow period, reaches a crescendo in the civil rights era, and continues to the present day.  But the story of “We Shall Overcome” isn’t only  about a song that has come to represent the struggle for equality, freedom, peace, and justice around the world.  It’s also about how the act of singing and the process of sharing songs are part of what defines us as human beings.

Collage-style art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton pays tribute to the layers upon layers of history, and the voices upon voices who are the story of “We Shall Overcome.”

Disney-Jump at the Sun Books
Ages 5 up
ISBN 978-1-4231-1954-8

Buy the book:
IndieBound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble


* 2014 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor Book (Read more here, from the Jane Addams Tumblr) *

* American Folklore Society 2014 Aesop Accolade *

* A Bank Street College Best Children’s Book *

* An NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book 2014 *

The power of song to bolster courage, combat bigotry, and effect change courses through this . . . . enlightening and inspiring book.”
–Publishers Weekly

“An inviting introduction to a spirited and spiritual anthem.”
–Kirkus Reviews

“An innovative capturing of history through the lens of a song and a passionate affirmation of human rights.”

“This handsome book will be highly useful for classroom and family discussions.”
–School Library Journal

*  “. . . a journey of a song spanning hundreds of years. . . accompanied by uplifting images by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.”
–Shelf Awareness (starred review)

Read the New York Times review here and the USA Today review here

A Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta, GA) Book Club selection

Chicago Public Library, Best Informational Books of 2013

Book Riot’s 100 Best Children’s Books for African American History Month (2017)


You can listen to recordings of “We Shall Overcome” at these links:

The Freedom Singers, from Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1997, in University of Virginia Library, Lift Every Voice:  Music in American Life, Protest Songs—We Shall Overcome.  Audio clip.

NPR, “A Freedom Singer Shares The Music Of The Movement,” February 11, 2010.  Singing led by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1964, from Voices of the Civil Rights Movement record.  Audio clip.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, ArtsEdge, “The Story Behind the Song:  We Shall Overcome.”  Video includes contralto Marian Anderson; folk singer Joan Baez.

Morehouse College Glee Club, “We Shall Overcome,” April 3, 2009.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performs “We Shall Overcome.”

More resources:

Video of excerpt from President Lyndon Johnson’s March 15, 1965 speech on the bill that later became the Voting Rights Act.  At about 5:10 in the video, he quotes “We Shall Overcome.”

Video of Hindi version of “We Shall Overcome” performed on Gandhi Jayanthi 2011, the national holiday in India celebrating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.  (Note that the video erroneously credits music and lyrics to “Martin Luther King.”)

Folk singer Pete Seeger talks about the history of the song in this interview.


Lesson plan using book from South Carolina Academic Standards (go to page 126, TA-ARTS-6 Music – History and Culture: “We Shall Overcome”

Interview about the book with writer Deborah Kalb

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