RELIGION

The Democrats Sang A Decades-Old Hymn Of Protest During Their Sit-In

This old hymn has often been used as an anthem for freedom.
A photo shot and tweeted from the floor of the House by U.S. House Rep. David Cicilline shows Democratic members of the U.S.
A photo shot and tweeted from the floor of the House by U.S. House Rep. David Cicilline shows Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. John Lewis (R) staging a sit-in on the House floor "to demand action on common sense gun legislation" on Capitol Hill in Washington, United States, June 22, 2016.

When House Speaker Paul Ryan interrupted Democrats' sit-in over gun control late Wednesday night, the protestors reportedly responded with a song -- the famous civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." 

And just like that, an African American spiritual that once delivered a promise of freedom echoed through the halls of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Earlier in the month, this simple tune was heard in vigils across the country, as people gathered to remember the victims of the Orlando shooting. 

"Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, some day," the mourners sang.

The powerful sense of certainty that is evoked by this old hymn, and its endless adaptability, have turned it into a song that has been used in protests around the world -- from Northern Ireland to South Africa. Its backstory, which has many twists, turns, and unknowns, is reflective of its history as a folk song -- a song of the people that expresses a longing for a brighter future for all. 

While the melody of the song may have roots in classical music of the late 18th century, according to Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, scholars at California State University, Fresno, the song's lyrical connection to protests for freedom can be traced back to the period before the Civil War, when slaves knew it as “No More Auction Block.” By the late 1800s, the song was a well-known hymn sung in African-American churches, using the words, "I’ll Be All Right."

At the turn of the century, a black Methodist minister from Philadelphia named Charles Albert Tindley published a version of the song that he called, "I’ll Overcome Some Day," according to the archivist Kate Stewart.

A few years later, the song brought black and white mine workers in Alabama together to protest low wages. After World War II, an interracial coalition of cigar factory workers used the song during their own strike.

The song was refined and re-written throughout the 1950s and 1960s, taken up by civil rights activists like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rep. Lewis. 

In this March 9, 1965 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joins hands with other African American leaders singing "We Sh
In this March 9, 1965 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joins hands with other African American leaders singing "We Shall Overcome" at a church rally in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/File)

In his memoir about the civil rights movement, Lewis wrote that "We Shall Overcome" helped him through many years of struggle.

"It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear," Lewis wrote in the book, according to NPR. "You were prepared to march into hell's fire."

As such, it's fitting that Lewis was on the House floor on Wednesday to hear that same tune used for another kind of battle -- the fight to pass stronger gun control legislation. 

The representatives changed one verse to "We shall pass a bill" -- proving once again its versatility as a prayerful hymn of protest.

Below, a version of the old hymn published in The United Methodist Hymnal.

1 We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
we shall overcome someday!

2 We'll walk hand in hand.

3 We shall all be free.

4 We shall live in peace.

5 The Lord will see us through.

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