This famous US civil rights song, may derive from an African-American composer, Charles Albert Tindley published in 1947, although Pete Seeger has said that nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. In the 1960s the song was made famous in the United States civil rights struggle. It was widely sung at concerts and rallies by Seeger, Joan Baez and others.
In South Africa the song became very popular in protest action by the National Union of South African Students and other liberal political movements. It is important to understand the context of South Africa at the time, where the liberation movements were banned and that liberal organisations like NUSAS and others played an important public oppositional role.
It should be noted that this was a movement cut off to a large extent from the tradition of resistance whose bearer had been the Congress movement, with its own songs and also its own aspirational documents, notably the Freedom Charter.
Without detracting in any way from the beauty and inspirational quality of We Shall Overcome, we need to locate its popularity in SA at the time, that was a moment of erasure of local traditions of resistance. This is the context where many of us, looked to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US constitution and other non-South African sources of inspiration. The apartheid regime had at that time erased public evidence of the South African tradition. Part of the process of liberation was to recover these indigenous sources.