Zilphia Horton

Zilphia Horton

Zilphia Horton (April 14, 1910 – April 11, 1956) was an American 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, 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 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' 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, 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 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.


  • New Horizons In Adult Education


  • entryTennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
  • Vicki K. Carter, "The Singing Heart of Highlander Folk School"
  • Through a Woman's VoiceBiographical sketch from