Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the folk musician Pete Seeger was given an ultimatum by the San Diego school board: sign an oath condemning communism, or cancel a concert he had planned at a local high school.
The left-wing singer, famous for such protest songs as "Turn, turn, turn!" and "Where have all the flowers gone?" refused to sign. Soon, the future of his small gig had become an international cause célèbre. Eventually, a judge allowed it to proceed anyway. Today, with the controversy as distant a memory as the era of McCarthyism that spawned it, the school board has decided to finally forgive and forget: this week, its members voted to issue a public apology to the 89-year-old musician, which he has happily accepted.
In a resolution passed unanimously, its members said they "deeply regret" their predecessors' actions, and would like to formally extend the hand of forgiveness to a man now firmly established as "one of our dearest national treasures". The letter of apology was written by Katherine Nakamura, a San Diego Unified school board member who was inspired by seeing Seeger at Barack Obama's inauguration concert last month, where he sang "This land is your land" in a duet with Bruce Springsteen.
In 1960, Seeger's performance at the 1,400-seat auditorium of Hoover High School was a sellout. But at the behest of the American Legion, the school board had ordered him to sign a pledge that his concert would not be used to either promote a communist agenda, or "overthrow" the US government. Seeger refused and, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that the oath interfered with his rights to free expression, won an 11th-hour injunction forcing the school to honour its contract.
"I was used to things like this, way back in what I call the Frightened Fifties," Seeger told reporters this week. "They were dangerous times." Five years before, he had refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the notorious group which, inspired by Republican senator Joe McCarthy, was formed to "name and shame" those in show-business thought to harbour communist sympathies.
Seeger had been a member of the Communist Party until 1949. Like many peers, he was "blacklisted" from major entertainment venues, and for years forced underground, performing in small clubs and school halls. The letter of apology offered Seeger, still a resolute left-winger, the chance to perform again at Hoover High. The musician said he would, with a track called "Take it from Dr King". The song is taken from his latest record At 89, which has won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.Reuse content