How the song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" developed
The cornerstone civil rights era song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" has a fascinating history. Hughes wrote the poem “Freedom’s Plow” (1943) at the request of Lester B. Granger, executive secretary of the National Urban League. His longest poem to date, several members of the organization helped Hughes shape the text that Broadway star Paul Muni read to music on NBC radio March 15, 1943
(Rampersad 2: 71). Hughes would publish the piece as a stand-alone book and sell it for $0.10 at his poetry readings, and it was later performed publicly by actor Fredric March (Miller, Langston Hughes 105). This poem was performed, not merely printed as the versions that are more easily accessible to us now. In other words, it was more often heard than seen.
Acknowledging the performative medium of this poem is significant because it reminds us that so much of what we have on paper lacks both the initial cultural context and the sonic interpretations made by the performers. The poem itself told the history of America from
an African American perspective, filling its lines with the hope and promises made in the Declaration of Independence.
However, its roots were spiritual and temporal.
At the time, the United Nations formed the year before with its primary mission being the collaborative world stance against the axis powers. Its first declaration was immediately signed by 26 nations with another 22 adding their names the next day. With its headquarters in New York, this new breed of global hope is what Hughes alludes to in the poem when he writes of “men united as a nation” (142). Hughes knew America is a dream, and he extended that hope to the world across geopolitical lines:
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build. (21-26)
To deepen the identity of all those working hands, Hughes built his poem around
the lyric of a song currently being revitalized from an old Negro spiritual. The
poem’s refrain, “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” came from a song of the same
title that had been around long before its first documentation in 1917.
Going through many significant transformations, the song was revived for the struggle against fascism in 1942. Shortly after, a young Pete Seeger created new lines fit for war times when he implored listeners of his group the Union Boys to “Keep your hand on that gun, hold on.”
Hughes could not have guessed how in-step his poem "Freedom's Plow" would become. When Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School of Tennessee discovered the effectiveness of Septima Clark’s citizenship education courses on Johns Island, South Carolina, she brought the white folk singer Guy Carawan along in 1959. Carawan led regular singing sessions and also served as chauffeur to Ms. Clark.
During a visit to the island, Alice Wine said she knew a “different echo” of the tune Carawan was playing. Local citizens had been signifying on its refrain in isolation by instead singing: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On” (Carawan 195). Almost without notice, this explains how the song’s mixed metaphor has now been passed down to us: No one actually "holds on" to something they merely see with their eyes.
From "Hands" to "Eyes"
We Shall Overcome
This new version of the song (holding on to an idea rather than
a plow) became a major vehicle for hope during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, the most well-known song from
that era also morphed through this same relationship. “I Will Overcome” was changed to “We Will Overcome” when Food
and Tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, sang it to protest a 1945 labor dispute, and by the late 1950s, Pete
Seeger again amended this by changing “Will” to “Shall,”
making it more easy to sing (Carawan 209).
When the Citizen Education Program (CEP) transferred from
Johns Island to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, students
from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, attended,
singing it along with Carawan to end his sessions. Though the
song was clearly already known, it became the anthem of the
era soon after the sit-in movement started in nearby Greensboro
in early 1960. In April of 1960, Shaw students merely started singing what Carawan had taught them at their Highlander
sessions, and they became among the very first to collectively
start singing “We Shall Overcome” publically in protest as they formed their own major organization. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) produced such eminent future political leaders as John Lewis, James Bevel, Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael.
Dorothy Cotton started training leaders in 1961, when the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference ran the CEP in
Savannah, Georgia, with emerging leaders such as Fanny Lou Hamer attending. Cotton and her trainers were conflating the
song with Hughes’s poem so that Cotton would later recall
Hughes’s ending in association with her favorite song:
“Freedom’s Plow,” and the song that flows from it put forth the
vision of the world in which people of every land live free.
'May all people know its shade.' The journey, the vision put
forth in Langston Hughes’s poem is the same vision articulated
by Dr. Martin Luther King. . . . This poem also prophetically
gave us this popular paraphrase of one of Hughes’s lines:
“Keep your eyes on the prize! Hold on!” (121)
After explaining that this plow had made the furrow in which freedom would grow, Cotton’s lines above are referencing how Hughes ended his poem:
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and its shelter grow
Until all races and all people know its shade.
KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW!
It is musical history that underlies this poem’s title and
performative reading on the radio, and this musicality is often
in need of readers following the turnaround back through
cultural transmission to identify how revolutionary Hughes’s
ability was for fixing on a song long before it became one of
the unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
To Learn More
Carawan, Guy and Candie. "Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?" Athens, GA: U of Georgia P., 1966.
Cotton, Dorothy. "If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement." New York: Atria Books, 2016.
Hughes, Langston. "Selected Letters of Langston Hughes." Ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. New York: Knopf, 2015.
Miller, W. Jason. "Langston Hughes: Critical Lives." London, Reaktion Books, 2020.