We Shall Overcome          ~         Foundation

Response to Cambridge University Press Article Regarding the "We Shall Overcome Lawsuit"

In July on 2022, July 13, 2022, an article entitled “All Rights Reserved: Behind the Strategic Copyright of We Shall Overcome” by Lizzy Cooper Davis, was published in print by The Journal of The Society of American Music, and online by the Cambridge University Press.

This is my response to that article.
-Isaias Gamboa

To:       The Journal of the Society for American Music


From:   Isaias Gamboa, 

Founder and President, We Shall Overcome Foundation.


To whom this may concern:


My name is Isaias Gamboa, and I am the founder and president of the 

We Shall Overcome Foundation (WSOF), a 501c3 Non-Profit organization founded in 2011.  I recently read your July 13, 2022, article entitled “All Rights Reserved: Behind the Strategic Copyright of We Shall Overcome” by Lizzy Cooper Davis.The article was published in print by your organization, the Journal of The Society of American Music, and online by the Cambridge University Press.


Upon reading this piece, I realized that like many others before her, 

Ms. Cooper Davis had relied on misinformation concerning the song’s true history, its purported owners and purported authors’ true connection and relationship to it. 


In response to the article, I’d like to share with you some of the evidence I’ve 

unearthed over my 10 years of research on this tremendously important song, 

which the US Library of Congress has named “The Most Powerful Song of the 

Twentieth Century.” As the Journal of The Society of American Music is an 

international peer-reviewed journal that encourages dialogue across disciplines, 

it is my hope that you will share the information I provide herewith with your 

readers and subscribers.


Since 2010, I’ve spent more than a decade researching the origins of 

We Shall Overcome and on my very first day, I realized that the information 

available to the world about We Shall Overcome was deeply flawed. 

The following is a summary of the research I’ve done on what the US Library of Congress has named, “The most powerful song of the twentieth century”. There are indeed few if any songs that have made as indelible a mark on the world as 

We Shall Overcome. I truly hope that the information provided in this letter will be shared by your organization with others, so that educators of younger generations may come to know and understand the true history, power and purpose of this globally revered protest anthem.  


In addition to a few inaccuracies such as the 1960 copyright for 

“We Shall Overcome” (WSO) listing four authors including Pete Seeger 

(Seeger was only included in the 1963 copyright), and our co-plaintiff’s name 

“Lee Butler” (the correct name is “Lee Daniels”, Ms. Cooper-Davis suggested that as a result of the lawsuit the loss of copyright ownership by the Richmond 

Organization/Ludlow Music (TRO/Ludlow), did more harm than good by denying 

“the redistribution of royalties to Black artist-activists across the South.” 


Although it is true that as a direct result of the lawsuit, We Shall Overcome is now

 in the public domain and royalties from WSO are no longer supposed to be 

solicited or collected by TRO/Ludlow. It is also true that, having their copyright 

annulled by a district judge, TRO/Ludlow should not be distributing WSO royalties to anyone—charitable organizations included…and for good reason. 

Our lawsuit proved that TRO/Ludlow, Pete Seeger, and the other purported authors of We Shall Overcome; registered, exploited, and controlled the song unlawfully for nearly 60 years. Not one cent of the royalties they collected ever truly belonged to Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton Zilphia Horton, or TRO/Ludlow. They had no legitimate right to collect such royalties. 




From the early 1980s till around 2010, I spent much time working in the music 

industry as a recording artist, songwriter, music publisher, and music producer and was fortunate enough to have had modest success in the music industry. In 1992 I signed to the Polydor Records “boy-band” Double Action Theatre. One day while taking a break from in recording studio, I was told of an improbable family legend by Robert Goins, the lead singer of the group. Robert believed his grandmother, Louise Shropshire, an African American choir director from Cincinnati with little education, was the true, yet uncredited author of “We Shall Overcome.” At the time I found this tale unbelievable. Our band broke up shortly afterward and I wouldn’t hear from Robert again for 17 years.


In 2009 Robert contacted me and, following a bit of small talk, reiterated his belief that his grandmother, Louise Shropshire was the original author of 

“We Shall Overcome”. By that time his grandmother had passed away and having little education himself, Robert asked if I could do “a little” research for him into why his grandmother’s name was never mentioned during Black History Month. Fully expecting to debunk his theory with a quick Google search, I agreed. I was wrong. 


Little did I know at that time that what began as a routine Google search would 

launch a 10-year expedition into the shocking true origins of 

We Shall Overcome. –A journey that would lead me to write a book (2011), produce an audiobook (2012), launch a class action lawsuit (2016), and produce a documentary film (2023). 


My journey of discovery into We Shall Overcome revealed that for the past 63 

years, the vast majority of what has been published and disseminated about 

WSO’s origins came from a single source and was manifestly false. Unfortunately, virtually every book, article, and publication ever written on the subject has relied on this misinformation. It is my mission to share what I’ve learned about We Shall Overcome with educators, educational publications, and institutions like the Journal of The Society of American Music


We Shall Overcome Foundation v. The Richmond Organization, Inc.

In 2018, the We Shall Overcome Foundation filed a class action lawsuit against 

The Richmond Organization/Ludlow Music (TRO/Ludlow). The lawsuit was widely covered by the global news media, made the front-page of the New York Times, and prompted me to sit for three NPR “All Things Considered” interviews. 

In the end, the evidence I had gathered was presented in the Southern District of New York and proved that the royalties received from WSO by Pete Seeger et al and TRO/Ludlow were obtained by fraud on the US Copyright office. In addition, we revealed that while 100% of these ill-gotten royalties and residuals were received by TRO/Ludlow, 50% of said royalties were diverted to The Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle Tennessee by way of the non-profit, “We Shall Overcome Fund”. 

These funds were administered by the purported authors of WSO: Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Myles Horton in the name of his deceased wife, Zilphia Horton. Evidence proved that Approximately 10% of these royalties were distributed as small grants to charitable organizations in the South. So out of 100% (of illegitimate royalties), only about 5% of all of the WSO royalties received by TRO/Ludlow were donated to charitable organizations in the South. 

As mentioned earlier, however, these royalties were collected through fraudulent means by the purported authors who claimed they were the original authors of the song. And as SDNY District Judge Denise Cote wrote:  

“The gap in the proof of originality cannot be filled by good intentions.” 

And although 50% of WSO royalties collected by TRO/Ludlow were deposited into the Highlander non-profit, the other 50% of WSO royalties remained in 

TRO/Ludlow’s coffers.


As indicated in Ms. Cooper Davis’ article, in 2016 the We Shall Overcome 

Foundation sued TRO/Ludlow in a landmark lawsuit to challenge the validity of 

TRO/Ludlow’s 1960 and 1963 copyrights, and free We Shall Overcome from 60 

years of illegitimate copyright control. After more than two years of contentious 

litigation, in 2018, on the eve of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend and three weeks before trial was to begin, I was ordered to sit for a seven-hour deposition by TRO/Ludlow’s attorneys in their Park Avenue, New York offices. It didn’t go well for TRO/Ludlow. A few days following my deposition, immediately following the MLK holiday, I was informed by my attorneys that TRO/Ludlow wanted to settle out-of-court to surrender all rights to the music and lyrics to “We Shall Overcome”.


While TRO’s out-of-court settlement constituted a substantial legal victory for WSOF, our not going to trial also meant that after two and a half years of litigation, 177 filings, challenges, objections, and motions to dismiss by TRO/Ludlow; we would not have the opportunity to present to a jury, the evidence we had compiled regarding TRO’s 60-year campaign to defraud and deceive the US Copyright Office, the academic community, the media, the American public, and the world. 

In September of 2018, in her final “opinion and order” regarding this case, SDNY District Court Judge Denise Cote wrote: 

“As part of the settlement, defendants agreed to stop claiming a copyright 
in the melody or lyrics of any verse of the song We Shall Overcome included
in their two copyright registrations…” 
“As for that prong of the motion that sought to dismiss the
claim of fraud on the copyright office, the complaint plausibly
alleged that the copyrights had been obtained through fraud…”
“On summary judgment, this Court found that there
were material factual disputes as to the authorship, divestment,
and fraud on the copyright claims…”
“The defendants were even at significant risk of a finding that they had 
engaged in a fraud on the Copyright Office. The applications for 
registration of the copyrights had omitted material disclosures of prior 
works and authors…”
“It also bears noting that the second motion came on the eve of a
trial that the parties had already invested substantial effort
preparing for. That motion is best understood as reflecting the
defendants’ lack of confidence in their ability to defend
against either the authorship or fraud challenges to their
copyrights at trial.”
Case 1:16-cv-02725-DLC Document 164 Filed 07/31/18

Our lawsuit resulted in Judge Cote’s order placing We Shall Overcome” forever 

into the public Domain. However, the fact that the case never made it to trial also 

meant that the media, the public, and the academic community might not learn the truth of the song’s history and as a result, continue to believe the misleading 

statements widely propagated about the song’s history over more than 60 years. 


Below are some of the more significant findings I’ve unearthed in my research 

since 2010, along with documents supporting these findings. 


The following are included in the We Shall Overcome Lawsuit’s 177 court filings:


1. Discovery documents proving that Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Myles Horton (widower of Zilphia Horton) knowingly committed fraud on the copyright office in 1960 and then again with Pete Seeger in 1963 by signing their names to a notarized songwriter’s agreement in which they falsely stated they were the: “sole writer/s composer/s, and owner/s of said composition, and any and all rights therein; and that said composition has never been published, copyrighted or registered in any part of the world…” In fact, it was proven through their own recorded and written statements, which were also entered as evidence, that none of these purported writers contributed any original melody or lyrics whatsoever to We Shall Overcome.

2. Discovery documents proving that TRO/Ludlow’s general manager, Al Brackman knew that, according to statements made to him be Pete Seeger in 1963, WSO was not an original composition by either Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, or Zilphia Horton. In addition, although they have made public statements to the contrary, documents and recordings reveal Pete Seeger and TRO’s strong contention that Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s 1901 hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday” was and is NOT the antecedent to WSO. Evidence also shows that the woman who taught the song to Pete Seeger in 1947, learned it from a group of black female gospel singers in the 1940’s.

3.  Discovery document revealing a letter from Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, PhD; Musicologist, Cultural historian in music history at the Smithsonian Institution, TRO/Ludlow consultant, and close friend of Pete Seeger. In her letter,a dn in her Doctoral Thesis, Johnson-Reagon, offers evidence supporting her belief that Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s, “I’ll Overcome Someday” and writes, “It would be an error to add his name to the copyright”.

4. Discovery document from TRO/Ludlow employee, Judy Bell regarding Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Someday”. Ms. Bell writes: “This is not the same tune or words in any way”

5. Discovery documents proving that in 1994, Pete Seeger requested that TRO/Ludlow remove his name from the WSO copyright, and TRO/Ludlow’s inter-office communication in which they suggested deceiving Seeger by telling him they would comply in the hopes that he would forget. 

6. Discovery documents showing Pete Seeger’s handwritten note admitting to fraudulently adding his name to 60 songs, including “We Shall Overcome” and “Guantanamera”, as well as songs actually written by the folk singer Lead Belly. Documents also include TRO/Ludlow’s letter to Seeger agreeing to remove his name from these songs, although they never did. 

7. The 2010 discovery of hymn writer, Louise Shropshire and her 1954 copyright for “If My Jesus Wills”, most commonly known as “I’ll Overcome”. Evidence that Shropshire was a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. Among other published hymns, Shropshire co-authored, “Behold the Man of Galilee” with Rev. Dorsey. Shropshire performed “If My Jesus Wills” with her gospel choir all around the US, and at the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which was founded by Rev. Dorsey. Documentary evidence shows her hymn was composed between 1932 and 1942. Her lyrics are the nearly identical to we shall overcome and strongly suggest her as the original missing-link author of We Shall Overcome. 



Divergent opinions regarding the origins and influence of We Shall Overcome, as well as the importance and outcome of the We Shall Overcome lawsuit, should be encouraged. However, without truth, no truly informed opinion or commentary can be achieved. 


We agree that truth, accuracy, and objectivity are tenets of good and ethical journalism and scholarship. Before the publication of my 2012 book, “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue,” and my documentary film, “Claim the Sky: We Shall Overcome,” most if not all, the books, periodicals, and articles written about the origins of We Shall Overcome, were derived from a single source—Pete Seeger, who claimed a 25% copyright interest in the anthem and has publicly indicated it was his best-selling song. And although journalistic standards dictate that two credible independent sources are obtained before publishing a story, most journalists appear not to have noticed that Seeger’s account was merely hearsay.


I interviewed Pete Seeger for my documentary film in 2012. In this interview, Seeger stated that since the 1940s, everything he knew about WSO’s origins was told to him by Zilphia Horton, who taught the song to him in the late 1940s but died in 1957, prior to the 1960 copyright registration of We Shall Overcome. 

The facts and details in this letter are supported by discovery documents and provide evidence of the following:

  1. Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Someday” is not the antecedent to We Shall Overcome. 
  2. Neither Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton or Zilphia Horton were authors or composers of We Shall Overcome.
  3. TRO/Ludlow, Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton and Myles Horton (widower of Zilphia Horton) knowingly committed fraud on the US Copyright Office by claiming sole authorship, copyright ownership, and control of We Shall Overcome for almost 60 years.
  4. As a result of the 2016 We Shall Overcome lawsuit initiated by The We Shall Overcome Foundation, We Shall Overcome was released from TRO/Ludlow’s illegitimate and control and entered into the public domain.
  5. Louise Shropshire’s hymn, “If My Jesus Wills”, most commonly known as “I’ll Overcome”, composed between 1934 and 1942, was copyrighted in 1954, six years prior to the TRO/Ludlow copyright for We Shall Overcome. 
  6. The lyrics to Louise Shropshire’s “If My Jesus Wills” are:                                I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome someday,                                Oh Yes, If my Jesus wills, I do believe, I’ll overcome someday
  7. Shropshire’s lyrics are strikingly similar to the lyrics of We Shall Overcome and objectively more similar than any other known original copyrighted song pre-dating the TRO/Ludlow WSO 1960 copyright. 
  8. Louise Shropshire was a close friend and ally of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, during her lifetime, asserted that WSO was derived from her gospel hymn, “If My Jesus Wills”.
  9. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Louise Shropshire performed IMJW all over the United States and at the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses with her gospel choirs, “The New Prospect Singers,” and “The Shropshire Singers.”



Isaias Gamboa

Founder and President, We Shall Overcome Foundation