Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pete Seeger and Free Speech

Seeger at 86 on the cover of Sing Out! (Summer...Image via Wikipedia In light of our recent discussions about civil liberties and free speech, it might be a good time to consider the tens of thousands of people who have assembled in the Occupy Wall Street protests. The protests have recently spread to many other cities including Chicago as people increasingly become aware of the enormous disparity between the rich and the working poor in the United States.  One percent of Americans are millionaires, for example, but 50% of Congress consists of millionaires. Is it any wonder then that laws routinely favor the rich? Is it any wonder there is so much outrage? 

As part of the protests, I was thrilled to see one of my great heroes: Pete Seeger. One reason why this comes as a surprise is that Seeger is 92.  Pete has spent his long, rich life pursuing the values that he most cares about -- social justice, racial equality, environmental protection, and world music. Seeger's not just a folk music hero to me; he's worshiped by many important singers who've followed him -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle just to name a few. (See the "iPod" on the side of this blog to hear Earle's recent song called "Steve's Hammer for Pete").

Seeger is a man of tremendous principle -- and his life embodies much of the opposition to civil liberties' abuses we are studying. He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing many Japanese-Americans in prison camps. He fought for civil rights, singing with Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome". He fought for unions and common working men (and women since he also advocated equality among the sexes). He traveled the world and recorded world music like no one had ever done before.

For all this he was branded a Communist (read: witch hunt) and was blacklisted from appearing on TV for 17 years at the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by defiantly singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly cleaned up the environmental disaster of the Hudson River. He's 92 now and he gets my vote for "the American who best exemplifies the values I hold most dear." Who are your heroes? 


DanielB. said...

This is such an amazing person Mr. O'Connor - this just goes to show what people can do when they really are strong willed about something.

My hero is a guy named Norman Borlaug. He was born in 1914 and passed just two years ago in 2009, but in his 95-year life managed to save over 1 BILLION lives. No exaggeration- that amounts to about 10.5 million people for every year he was alive. He did this by plating massive farms all around the world and donating the food to underprivileged people all around the world. The main crop that he grew was a variant of wheat that was extremely high yield and disease-resistant. He also is the one who developed this plant. I find this man's story absolutely incredible because he wasn't just some guy with a lot of money who donated it, but he concerted his life effort to helping the less fortunate by using the knowledge he had gained to better the world. For these accomplishments he is a nobel peace prize winner, a Presidential Medal of freedom holder as well as a congressional gold medal holder.

Betsy P said...

What I found heroic about Seeger is how he didn't let the setbacks stop him from fighting for what he believed in. His creation of the song "The Big Muddy" demonstrates his persistence.

My hero is JJ Hanley. A woman I got to know from doing the oral history project. JJ Hanley is my hero because like Seeger, she never gave up. A mother of a child with autism, she learned how individuals with disabilities go into a "wasteland" or "cliff" after high school. Although it was a daunting problem, she chose not to walk away and created JJ's List (found here: An incredible website that allows people with disabilities be a part of our world after high school.

JJ didn't let the challenges--the fear of disability and the preference to just avoid it-- stop her from finding a solution. Most importantly, she didn't walk away.

Elise H. said...

I have always heard my mom singing "If I had a Hammer" around the house but I never knew the history behind the artist!
It really takes an unbelievable amount of courage to be able to say what you truly believe to a world full of people disagreeing with you. I think that is what I admire most about Seeger, his ability to say what he feels even if it means going against the grain of society.
My hero, much like Betsy's, was not necessarily one who spoke out, but someone who persevered and never gave up, even through very difficult times. His name is Steve Goodman and he was also a singer/songwriter. He loved his hometown Chicago and the Cubs, and his songs were sung with so much passion and love for life.
Sadly, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after his career got going. He fought through it, continuing to write and perform music for as long as he possibly could before he died.
He was an inspiration to so many people, and most importantly, he passed away still holding a positive outlook on life. He had no regrets--he accepted his fate for what it was and lived life to its absolute fullest while he could.

Hayley B said...

I have a rather strange hero. His name is Marcus Porcius Cato, typically called Cato the Younger to distinguish him from his more famous grand-father, Cato the Elder. He was a Roman senator towards the end of the republic who opposed Caesar.
Cato is really not very famous at all, I only learned of him while reading a book about Cicero, but he was amazing in his conviction to his principles. In a time where the republic was ending and people were pretty much always bribed, he never accepted bribes. When a rival statesman hired a giant, violent mob to attack the senators (it’s a long story), he refused to leave and just stood there until finally the other senators decided he was going to die unless they grabbed him so they went out and dragged him out of the mob. He didn’t move because he didn’t think the mob should be there.
He also fought a clearly losing battle against Caesar, who was attempting to take dictatorial power for life, and when it was clear he could not win, he killed himself rather than live under Caesar’s rule. Now we would consider this action to be cowardly and disqualify someone from being a hero, and I hardly think anyone should commit suicide, but in the culture Cato lived in that would be the honorable thing to do – and he stuck to his principles even when it meant stabbing himself in the stomach and then waking up while a doctor was trying to save you and then ripping your intestines back out of your stomach again so that you definitely died.

Naomi said...

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David K. said...

I hold very great respect for people like Thomas Jefferson, along with some of the other founding fathers. Although I'm willing to admit that they weren't perfect by any means, and that they owned slaves and treated women unfairly, they were heroes that I look up to. The founding fathers radically changed the world as we know it, and they protested against an unjust government that was violating their rights. They were the building blocks of the greatest country known to man, and the ideas that they brought to the table were nothing short of revolutionary. In my opinion, they deserve much more respect than they are given, and as much as people like to bring up their flaws, my view stays unchanged: the founding fathers enriched the lives of countless people by setting an environment through which people were guaranteed rights and businesses were able to prosper.