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All Rights Reserved: Behind the Strategic Copyright of “We Shall Overcome”
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2022
In 2015, musician and non-profit director Isaías Gamboa and filmmaker Lee Butler sued The Richmond Organization (TRO) and its offshoot Ludlow Music over their copyright to the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” The copyright had initially been registered in 1960 and named four white folksingers: Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, Zilphia Horton, and Pete Seeger. Suspicious of the white names on the copyright, Gamboa wanted to liberate the song from what appeared to be corporate control. The suit was ultimately successful and the song was placed in the public domain. However, while Gamboa and Butler celebrated their win in a Manhattan court, activists across the South took it as a loss. Although overseen by TRO and Ludlow, the copyright's royalties had long gone to the Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly The Highlander Folk School), a pre-eminent and decades-old grassroots organizing hub best known for its work with such icons as Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, and Dr. Martin Luther King. The money was housed there in the We Shall Overcome Fund, which had been created by cultural workers of the civil rights movement in collaboration with those named on the copyright to facilitate the redistribution of royalties to Black artist-activists across the South. Far from facilitating theft, the copyright had strategically scaffolded Black-led community organizing for nearly 60 years. This article traces the history and work of this remarkable effort to turn the civil rights movement's anthem into its most lasting cultural tool.
- Research Article
- Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for American Music
Thank you to Ingrid Monson, Koritha Mitchell, and Bob Colby for their guidance, the Ford Foundation for their support, the anonymous reviewers from JSAM for their feedback, Susan Williams and those interviewed for this article for their time, and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon for teaching so many to sing for freedom.
Parts of this copyright story were referenced in my earlier article, Lizzy Cooper Davis, “Culture and Struggle: The Organizing History of ‘We Shall Overcome,’” No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music (Fall 2016): 34–41.