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Folk singer behind popularity of ‘We Shall Overcome’ dies

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Guy Carawan, a folk singer and social-justice advocate credited with turning the African-American spiritual “We Shall Overcome” into a unifying anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement, has died at 87.

For years, Carawan was a leader of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. It served as a gathering place for social-justice activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

The song “We Shall Overcome” was adapted by Pete Seeger and others at Highlander from the spiritual “I Will Overcome.” As Highlander music director, Carawan taught the song to activists who led the sit-in movement of the 1960s. He even sang it at the first organizing meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on April 15, 1960, Carawan’s wife, Candie Carawan, said.

It included a verse added a year earlier by a 13-year-old African American activist named Mary Ethel Dozier. Candie Carawan said Dozier came up with the words, “We are not afraid,” during a sheriff’s department raid on what was then the Highlander Folk School as she, Guy Carawan and others sat in the dark, waiting.

Tennessee revoked the school’s charter and confiscated its land and buildings in Monteagle, so it reopened with a new name in Knoxville, later moving to New Market.

The Carawans marched with King in Selma, Alabama. Guy Carawan made recordings to preserve the civil rights movement and Appalachian folk songs.

He also helped spread another staple song of the civil rights movement. Candie Carawan said her husband was in South Carolina working with the citizenship schools that helped African Americans to pass voter registration tests when a local activist heard him sing, “Keep Your Hands on the Plow.”

Alice Wine told Carawan they had a different way of singing the song — “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

Candie Carawan said her husband died Saturday at his home in New Market after suffering from a form of dementia for years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Heather Carawan and his son, Evan Carawan. A private funeral service is planned.

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