Happy Wednesday! This book came out several years ago, but I recently came across it while searching for more civil rights picture books. A tribute to the famous song and the many people who have sung it from America’s era of slavery through the 60s civil rights movement and continuing today in the fight for freedom and equality, take a look at We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, 2013.

Beautifully written, Levy interweaves lines from the song on each spread and supports them with the history of the song through the years. Beginning with the long days of slavery, where the song was sung to lift spirits and declare their humanity, Levy immediately brings the harsh reality and reason for the song to the forefront.

Though the Civil War officially ended slavery, the exclusion and dehumanization of black people continued. And the people continued to sing.

Martin Luther King took the song up himself with his important fight for justice. The words changed slightly over the years, but the spirit and the power of the song remained.

The Freedom Singers traveled with the song across forty states declaring that change was coming. From marches, through protests, and from the mouth of the US President, the words resounded:

“We must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.”

Such a powerful song continues to move the people of our country and many others around the world.

We sing this song often with my children’s school. The melody easily sticks in your head and the words are wonderfully adapted to so many situations surrounding injustice. Every time I join in song with it, I tear up seeing all the faces, young and old, black and white together, singing about overcoming, together. I love that this book is a tangible reminder to myself and my children of a song that represents what we feel and why we fight.

Though the message is the driving force of this book for me, I would be entirely remiss to not talk about Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s lovely paint and collage illustrations. Her work is so active, emotive, and beautiful. The history and message of this song can be heavy and difficult; and while Brantley-Newton maintains the respect for the song and what it fights for, she also gives approachability and beauty to hard moments for little ones to comprehend. It can be terribly difficult to discuss the evils of slavery, the Civil Rights movement and continued injustices with young children, and I value and appreciate songs like this and books like this that give aid to conversations at appropriate levels.

While progress in the equality movement continues to be slow, “We Shall Overcome” is still faithfully sung like a steady drumbeat driving the immensely important theme forward. This book is a powerful message and reminder that though hatred, poverty, despair, injustice remains; we are all humans, deserving of respect and kindness in our shared future.