Zilphia Horton

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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 was born Zilphia Mae Johnson in the mining town of Spadra, Arkansas. She was the second child of Robert Guy Johnson and Ora Ermon Howard Johnson. Her father was superintendent of the local coal mine which he later owned and operated, and her mother was a school teacher. She was of Spanish and Indian heritage.

She was a graduate of the College of the Ozarks (now the University of the Ozarks), where she was trained as a classical musician.[1]

After graduating, Johnson was determined to use her talents for the better good of the southern working class. She tried to organize the workers in her father's coal mine, for which she was disowned by her family.

In 1935, she attended a labor education workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.[2] Two months later, she married the school's founder, Myles Horton, and began working for the Highlander Folk School.

Zilphia Horton had numerous roles at Highlander. 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.

Zilphia and Myles Horton had two children. On April 11, 1956, at only 45 years of age, she 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 rewrite the song "We Shall Overcome" into a secular 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.[3]



  1. ^ "Zilphia Mae Johnson Horton (1910–1956) - Encyclopedia of Arkansas". www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net. Retrieved 2017-03-03.
  2. ^ "Employing Music in the Cause of Social Justice". www.nyfolklore.org. Retrieved 2017-03-03.
  3. ^ "HORTON, ZILPHIA, FOLK MUSIC COLLECTION, 1935-1956 | Tennessee Secretary of State". sos.tn.gov. Retrieved 2017-03-03.