It's Been A Long Time Coming

It's Been A Long Time Coming

Guy Carawan died earlier this month at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. He had been the director there for many years. While an accomplished musician, folklorist and collector of traditional hymns and songs, his most lasting contribution is probably one he launched almost accidentally.
“O Sanctissima” is a Roman Catholic hymn composed in 1792. Beethoven arranged the hymn as “No. 4” in his “Verschiedene Volkslieder” and the tune made its way to the United States. Eventually it was rewritten and published by a black preacher in Philadelphia, which led to its use by workers in a 1945 strike against the American Tobacco Company cigar factory. Zilphia Horton, a musician and labor organizer, heard it there and taught it to Pete Seeger— who then passed it along to Guy for his collection.
In 1960, Guy introduced the song—“We Shall Overcome”—at a 1960 meeting of black students in Raleigh, N.C. From that meeting the anthem has become what the Library of Congress considers the “most powerful song of the 20th century.”
“Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: ‘We shall overcome.’
In the decades since, the song has circled the globe and has been embraced by civil rights and pro-democracy movements in dozens of nations worldwide. From Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe, from Berlin to Beijing, and from South Africa to South America, its message of solidarity and hope has been sung in dozens of languages, in presidential palaces and in dark prisons. It continues to lend its strength to all people struggling to be free.”
This last week I traveled to Haiti, and the religious roots of that song—and the reality of the long years of struggle—were in my mind as we looked at the work of the Restavek Freedom Foundation. For eight years, Ray and Joan Conn have dedicated their lives and a good part of their fortune to ending the system of domestic slavery that has been endemic to Haiti for hundreds of years. In Creole “restavek” means “to stay with,” but the word refers to a form of modern-day slavery that persists in Haiti, affecting one in every 15 children.
Typically born into poor rural families, restavek children are often given to relatives or strangers. In their new homes, they become domestic slaves, performing menial tasks for no pay, suffering humiliation and abuse, deprived of education, association with other children and then dismissed to the streets when they are too expensive to feed. The reasons that the restavek practice persists in Haiti are complex— ranging from harsh economic conditions to the cultural attitudes toward children. But every morning, 300,000 children in Haiti, wake up to another day of fetching water, cooking, cleaning and the ever-present danger of sexual abuse.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker recently wrote about Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope and his idea of how political reform happens: “An impossible idea becomes possible, then becomes necessary, and then all but a handful of diehards accept its inevitability. The job of those trying to bring about change is not to hector it into the agenda of the necessary but to move it into the realm of the plausible. Once something is plausible in a semi-democratic society, it has a natural momentum toward becoming real.”
I believe the Restavek Freedom movement in Haiti, because of those who choose to practice “a long obedience in the same direction,” is close to where our own civil rights movement was in the 1950s. All movements for change take decades and depend on dedication, sacrifice and serendipity. I listened to the children sing in Haiti and thought, “They need an anthem they can sing together all across the island.” Not just a church hymn or a pop song. I think they will find their own “We Shall Overcome” and those who have been working on this tirelessly for so many years will do just that.


  1. Fred:
    Informative, engaging, educational. I especially like the Gopnik/Trollope paragraph. Overall, more material it behooves us all to remember while we face off against the urge to make things happen right now.

    • John, I agree with you on the Gopnik piece. I did not know if it would fit but it deserves even more space.

  2. Thanks, Fred, for highlighting the plight of the restavek children, and the work of Ray and Joan and their dedicated team. I am never more inspired than when in Haiti working with believers there.They seem to truly grasp the reality of John 16:33, and I am always humbled by their patient perseverance.

    • Jeanie, I do believe they are at a “tipping point” in their work. I know that is a loaded and overused term but something was different about the progress they are making. Scripture talks about perseverance as what is left standing when everything else erodes around you. They have that.

  3. Thanks Fred for writing this. Ray and Joan are an amazing model to us and I’m sure many many others …..of what it looks like to lay down your life and also to not grow weary doing good!
    Praying for them and the RFF and in so doing am thinking of Is 61:1-2

    • Todd, you and I have the totally unearned privilege of knowing people like Ray, Joan and others around the world who stick with it when everyone else moves on.

  4. Thank you Fred and all who commented. We are truly humbled by these notes of encouragement and affirmation.

    • Hey! Weare grateful for you and the others doing this work.

  5. Spot on Fred – on all accounts!


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