Zilphia Horton (Zilphia Mae Johnson)

Zilphia Horton

Zilphia Horton (April 14, 1910 – April 11, 1956) was an American musician, community organizer, educator, Civil Rights activist, and folklorist. She is best known for her work with her husband Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School where she is generally credited with turning such songs as “We Shall Overcome”, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “This Little Light of Mine” from hymns into songs of the Civil Rights movement. Zilphia Horton was born Zilphia Mae Johnson in the mining town of Spadra, Arkansas, where her father owned and operated a coal mine. She was of Spanish and Indian heritage. She was trained as a classical musician. She was a graduate of the College of the Ozarks (which was the University of the Ozarks at the time). She was determined to use her talents for the better good of the southern working class. She was disowned by her family after she tried to organize her father’s coal mine. In 1935, she attended a labor education workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Two months later, she married the school’s founder, Myles Horton. As a member of the staff, Zilphia served in many ways. She directed workers’ theatre productions, junior union camps, and various community programs, organized union locals, and led singing at workshops, picket lines, union meetings, and fund-raising concerts. She had students collect folk songs, religious music, and union songs around the South which she then re-wrote or re-worked to turn into anthems of the Civil Rights movement.

She and Myles Horton had two children. On April 11, 1956, Zilphia Horton died of kidney failure after accidentally drinking a glass of typewriter cleaning fluid containing carbon tetrachloride she mistook for water. She is best known for helping to transform the song “We Shall Overcome” into a Civil Rights anthem in 1946. Other musicians credited with transforming the song are Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger. Other songs she reworked were “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” She collected hundreds of songs. Her papers are deposited in the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.

More Images

  • 0715000253-l -


  • April, 14, 1910
  • USA
  • Spadra, Arkansas


  • April, 11, 1956
  • USA
  • Nashville, Tennessee

Cause of Death

  • kidney failure


  • Summerfield Cemetery
  • Grundy County, Tennessee
  • USA

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