Pete Seeger, a few months shy of age 95, died yesterday. Natural causes.
Pete Seeger, a man in the same league as Woodie Guthrie, was a life-long supporter of labor, of workers, civil rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism.
Would it surprise you to know that Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II, despite being a member of the Communist Party USA? (He later left the party and always disdained Stalin’s Soviet communism.) And that he, a war veteran, was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) more than ten years after the war ended?
When the demagogues of the very un-American Un-American Committee demanded to know for whom he sang on this occassion or that, Pete refused to answer. He also refused to take the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Instead, in August 1955, he asserted his First Amendment rights of free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and replied:
I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.
He was alone in asserting those First Amendment rights after the 1950 conviction of the Hollywood Ten as Senator McCarthy and political allies in the House attempted to root out “Communists and Homosexuals” from positions in government and the entertainment industry. Most others asserted their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, also known as the right against self-incrimination.
The HUAC’s hearings resulted in the blacklisting of over 300 people, including directors, radio commentators, actors, screenwriters, musicians and more. Among these were Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Paul Robeson and many more. Only around ten percent of those blacklisted succeeded in rebuilding a career in the entertainment industry. In 1959, former President Truman criticized the committee as the “most un-American thing in the country today.”
But why assert a right against self-incrimination simply for exercising your existing rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association? And so he didn’t. He simply refused to answer questions as to when and where he sang what song and to, or with, whom.
Seeger did offer to testify about his love of singing, his songs themselves, and his life. The un-American Un-American committee would hear none of it.
To our nation’s shame, Pete Seeger was charged with contempt of Congress a year and a half later, March 26, 1957. A jury trial convicted him after another four years, March 1961, but in May 1962, nearly seven years after the original hearings, an appeals court overturned the conviction.
Why does this particular aspect of Pete Seeger’s life have resonance with me? Here was a man who was a folk singer, armed with nothing more than a banjo, who stood up to the abuse of government power and ultimately was vindicated. He knew there would be a cost and he faced that reality, asserting his rights and his freedoms.
Today, “leftist” and “collectivist” are used as slurs, but who really understood what American values and American Constitutional rights are all about? Who has history vindicated? Was it the “respectable men” of the McCarthy era of the House Un-American Activities Committee or was it this member of the Communist Party of the USA?
Let us note, upon closing, that Pete Seeger, a simple banjo singer and World War II veteran, was tried for contempt before Congress 53 years ago only for asserting his Constitutional rights.
Yet, just a few months ago our current Director of “National Intelligence,” having been given the questions in advance and a chance to correct his response after, James Clapper still told bold-faced lies to Congress and neither Congress nor the US Justice Department shows any signs of interest in prosecution. But, you know, Clapper apologized for publicly lying to Congress so we’re good.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Excerpts from Pete Seeger’s 1955 testimony before Congress:
Mr. SEEGER: Mr. Walter, I believe I have already answered this question, and the same answer.
Chairman WALTER: The same answer. In other words, you mean that you decline to answer because of the reasons stated before?
Mr. SEEGER: I gave my answer, sir.
Chairman WALTER: What is your answer?
Mr. SEEGER: You see, sir, I feel—
Chairman WALTER: What is your answer?
Mr. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is.
I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
Chairman WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?
Mr. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
Chairman WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.
Mr. SCHERER: Let me understand. You are not relying on the Fifth Amendment, are you?
Mr. SEEGER: No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.
Mr. TAVENNER: You said that you would tell us about the songs. Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, which is a summer camp for adults and children, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?
Mr. SEEGER: Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business.
Mr. TAVENNER: I am going to ask you.
Mr. SEEGER: But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.
Mr. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled “Town Talk” there is found this statement:
The first performance of a new song, “If I Had a Hammer,” on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will be given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena…. Among those on hand for the singing will be…. Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays—
and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance?
Mr. SEEGER: I shall be glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.
Mr. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.
Chairman WALTER: You may not be interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.
Mr. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.
Mr. TAVENNER: My question was whether or not you sang at these functions of the Communist Party. You have answered it inferentially, and if I understand your answer, you are saying you did.
Mr. SEEGER: Except for that answer, I decline to answer further. . . .
Mr. SCHERER: Do you understand it is the feeling of the Committee that you are in contempt as a result of the position you take?
Mr. SEEGER: I can’t say.
Mr. SCHERER: I am telling you that that is the position of the Committee…
Mr. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
Who among these men were “real Americans”?