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Posted under: News Black History

Songwriter Who Wrote 'We Shall Overcome' Finally Gets Credit For Her Work

"We Shall Overcome" has overcome its copyright issues.

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Civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was placed in the public domain recently, and its original author has been placed in the spotlight, WSB-TV reports.

Louise Shropshire, a music minister and entrepreneur, has now been given credit for creating the iconic song, which was made famous by mid-century folk singers like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Seeger has said he first heard the song during a strike of black tobacco workers in the 1940s, and told a musician researching the song's origins in 2006, "nobody knows exactly who wrote the original."

Shropshire's song "If My Jesus Wills," which begins with the lyrics "I'll overcome/I'll overcome/I'll overcome someday/If my Jesus wills," was written in 1942. She worked as the music minister for Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati, and wrote a number of songs for her church that went on the be sung in houses of worship across the country.

"She could sing well, she could play well, she could cook well," Patricia Massengill, one of Shuttlesworth's daughters, said.

Martin Luther King himself was a fan of Shropshire's music, singing and her cooking as well. The reverend stayed with Shropshire and her husband while in Cincinnati for a conference; and King would go on to attend dinner parties at the couple's home.

Shropshire would always end the night by playing hymns on the piano; after she played "If My Jesus Wills" one night, King reportedly asked her if he could use the song, and if he could change "I'll overcome" to "we'll overcome."

"I don't mind," she said.

King would go on to use the phrase in his speeches, like in the one he gave in 1966 at Southern Methodist University.

"And so I can sing anew, 'We shall overcome' and we shall overcome because Carlyle is right, 'No lie can live forever,'' King said. "We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, 'Truth crushed to earth will rise again.' We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, 'Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.'"  

Although the song had a prominent place in civil rights history, it was rarely used in film or television, because the Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization, which held the rights to the song, habitually asked for high fees for its use.

Lee Daniels hoped to use it in The Butler, but couldn't afford Ludlow and Richmond's six figure asking price. Instead, he used a three second clip that cost $16,000. Ava Duvernay hoped to used the song in Selma, but similarly couldn't afford it.

In fact, it was the high cost of film and television usage that led to the song being place in public domain and Shropshire at last getting credit for her work.

Butler Film, which produced The Butler, and nonprofit the We Shall Overcome Foundation sued the Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization and won. As a result, the song is now in the public domain, and is free for anyone to use.

Although she died in 1993, Shropshire is at last getting her due. She has been inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and is now credited with what the Library of Congress calls "the most powerful song of the 20th century."

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Ashleigh is a writer, podcaster and sh*t talker based in Atlanta, GA. She likes food, Beyonce, social justice and the whole bott--er, a glass of wine. Don't start none, won't be none.