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? 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A Lesson After Dying?

"I am innocent. May God have mercy on your souls." These were the last words of Troy Davis before the state of Georgia killed him by administering a lethal injection.


Davis had been convicted of killing a police man, Mark McPhail in 1989. For the past 22 years, Davis has sat on death row, appealing his conviction and the death sentence he received. While there was some limited physical evidence at the crime scene, prosecutors admitted that the most compelling evidence to the jury was the testimony of nine witnesses who testified that Davis was the shooter.

Since Davis's conviction, however, 7 of those 9 "eyewitnesses" have since recanted, swearing that their previous testimony was coerced by police eager for a conviction. Yet no court ever heard their revised testimony. Despite petitions signed by over one million people and pleas from former president Jimmy Carter, Rep. John Lewis (a civil rights pioneer who worked closely with Dr. King), former FBI director William Sessions, and even the Pope, Davis was executed without a new trial. 

96% of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, but it remains a form of "justice" in the United States. The United States, along with China, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and North Korea — countries we regularly condemn for heinous human rights violations — remain the countries that execute most frequently. Why do we equate murder with justice? 

On the same day that Davis was killed, Lawrence Brewer a white supremacist whose body was covered in KKK symbols, was also killed. Brewer was a racist thug who tied a black man, James Byrd, to the back of a truck in 1998 and dragged him to his death. Brewer's final words, in contrast to Davis's, were, "I'd do it all over again."

According to Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times, nearly two thirds of Americans favor the death penalty because people "want to believe our criminal justice system is just and not merely a mechanism for quarantining the dangerous in order to keep the law-abiding safe."

Is this sort of justice merely a story we tell ourselves to feel good about our society? Illinois, for example, has enacted a moratorium on executions ever since 13 men on death row were proven to be innocent.

For some, like former President Jimmy Carter, "the injustice of murdering an innocent man is too grave" to allow capital punishment to continue. To others, like the eloquent Sister Helen Prejean, the question is not whether these men should be put to death but whether we have the right to kill.