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Guy Carawan, Folksinger who introduced “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 87

Guy Carawan and his wife, Candie, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Insititute at Stanford University receiving the Call to Conscience Award in 2006.
Photo by Clayborne Carson

Civil rights activist and folk singer, Guy Carawan, died on Saturday, May 2 2015 in his home in New Market, Tenn.

During a performance at the 1960 founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Highlander Folk School, Carawan introduced an updated version of the hymn, “We Shall Overcome.” His performance that night gave rise to “We Shall Overcome” as the unofficial theme song of the civil rights movement. The seminal anthem has been sung at marches, meeting and demonstrations as far reaching as the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March; anti-apartheid rallies in South Africa; and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its lyrics were often quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, and concluded President Lyndon Johnson’s remarks at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Born on July 27, 1927 in Santa Monica, Calif., Carawan studied at Occidental College and went on to earn his MA in Sociology at UCLA. While working on his master’s degree, the musically-inclined Carawan became deeply interested in folk music and political activism. This interest propelled him to travel throughout the south during the early 1950’s, singing for his keep and collecting folk music along the way.

In 1959, Carawan was named the musical director for Highlander Folk School, a leadership training organization for social justice and civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. From Highlander, Carawan helped to disseminate other important Freedom Songs, such as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and used music as a way of teaching the importance of civil rights issues to a broader audience. Although he remained the musical director of Highlander until his retirement in the late 1980’s, Carawan tirelessly traveled all over the country with his wife, Candie Anderson, marching, striking, and singing in the name of civil rights. In 2006, the couple were presented with the Call to Conscience Award at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute’s annual King Holiday celebration.

Carawan was a producer or co-producer of many recordings, including “Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Mass Meeting,” which features Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and the Birmingham Movement Choir; “The Story of Greenwood, Mississippi,” featuring Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Dick Gregory; and “Freedom in the Air: Albany Georgia, 1961-62,” produced with Alan Lomax. As a singer, Carawan can be heard on several albums, among them “Songs With Guy Carawan.” The royalties Carawan receives from the commercial use of “We Shall Overcome,” are donated to the Highlander Center to support social and cultural programs in the South, and are evidence of his lifelong commitment to social and cultural justice.

Carawan is survived by his wife, their two children, Evan and Heather Carawan, and a granddaughter.