• Dennis McCaslin

OurArklahoma Heritage: Songs for Social Justice - Zilphia Mae Horton

(Editors note: Information for this article was taken from several sources including The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Arkansas Historical Quarterly and various online reviews.)

Paris, Arkansas circa 1910

Born in 1910 the eldest daughter of a coal mining executive in Paris, Zilphia Mae Johnson-Horton was probably the most influential social justice activist and early civil rights leaders out of Arkansas that I'm betting you probably never heard of.

Johnson-Horton was an influential educator, folklorist, musician, and who collected, adapted, performed, and promoted the use of folksongs and hymns in the labor and civil rights movements, notably “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome.”

These two songs, respectively, became labor and civil rights movement anthems.

Zilphia Johnson was born in Paris on April 14, 1910, the second child of Robert Guy Johnson, a coal mine superintendent, and Ora Ermon Howard Johnson, a schoolteacher. She was the eldest of four daughters.

Paris was a prosperous and growing Logan County community with a diverse population of approximately 1,500 residents in 1910. The city’s prosperity was based on coal mining, which was concentrated in a narrow band of coal fields located along the Arkansas River Valley.

Johnson’s father worked for the Paris Purity Coal Company. His ample income provided the family with an affluent lifestyle, including private music lessons for Zilphia, who began studying piano at age five and became an accomplished classical musician.

Johnson attended the College of the Ozarks (later the University of the Ozarks) in Clarksville (Johnson County), where she studied drama and music. She graduated in 1931.

In 1930, the Reverend Claude Williams became pastor of Paris’s Cumberland Presbyterian church, which Johnson attended.

Lee Hays

Williams’s ministry stressed solidarity with victims of social injustice, which appealed to working-class parishioners and young people such as Johnson and future folk singer Lee Hays, who regarded both Williams and Johnson as mentors.

Despite the church’s significant growth during his tenure, Williams’s political and social views provoked community elites and congregational elders who, in 1935, ousted him from the pulpit.

Like Hays, Johnson was greatly influenced by Williams in ways that would help to chart the course of her life.

In 1934, she joined him in an effort to unionize her father’s coal mine.

Because of her associations with Williams, and because he felt betrayed by the socialistic activities of his daughter, her father told her she had to stop going to Claude Williams’s church, and if she didn’t, he was going to throw her out of the house.

Zilphia ignored him, and Robert Johnson disowned her. Committed to the "cause" of worker's rights, she took the advice of some of her progressive friends and took a position at the collective Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.  

The school had been founded a scant two years earlier by Myles Horton, a protegee of Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics and public affairs, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years.

Horton had been born in Appalachia and brought a strong disdain for capitalism and "exploiting labor" which appealed to idealistic (and some say star struck) Zilphia

Within a year of her arrival at the "folk school", Zilphia and the charismatic Myles Horton were married. Not long afterward, Myles mediated a partial reconciliation between his wife and father-in-law.

The couple lived modestly at Highlander for many years and worked for the causes to which they had committed themselves.

They had two children.

As Highlander’s cultural director, Zilphia pioneered the mobilization of folk culture resources, especially music, in the service of social justice causes.

Her multifaceted work spanned a wide range of expressive arts, all of which aimed at educating and empowering oppressed people.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger recalled the talent and temperament she brought to this work, and Lee Hays credited her with motivating him to become a folk singer.

Best known of Horton’s many accomplishments, and illustrative of her work with many other songs, is her role in making an old hymn into the iconic anthem of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

In October 1945, she learned the version sung on the picket line during a tobacco workers’ strike in Charleston, South Carolina, by Lucille Simmons, who had changed the words “I’ll overcome” to “We will overcome.”

It soon became Horton’s favorite song. She added verses to the song, such as “We’ll walk hand in hand,” and changed the tempo. Later, she taught it to Pete Seeger, who changed “We will” to “We shall” to make it easier to sing.

Over a period of years, in large measure through Horton’s influence, the protest song spread throughout the labor and civil rights movements, and beyond, eventually becoming an international anthem of social justice movements.

Julian Bond

Civil rights leader Julian Bond observed, “People tell me that you can go anywhere in the world today and there’s somebody singing this song.”

In September 2017, a federal judge ruled that the song would no longer be under copyright control (Seeger, Horton, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan had obtained the copyright in the 1960s) and instead should be in the public domain.

On April 11, 1956, just before her forty-sixth birthday, Zilphia was working in the office at Highland Folk School when she accidentally drank from a glass containing a typewriter cleaning solution.

She died from acute kidney failure from uremic poisoning the same day.

Zilphia Mae Johnson Horton was buried in the Summerfield Cemetery in Grundy County, Tennessee.

Myles Horton, who is remembered as "The Father of the Civil Right's Movement" remarried in 1962 but upon his death at the age of 84 in 1990 was buried next to Zilphia per his final wishes.

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